The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

This is one of two Miles Burton novels currently available as British Library Crime Classics (the other is Death in the Tunnel). The reviews of this one seemed to be very mixed so I wasn’t expecting too much from it – and although I did find it enjoyable enough, it hasn’t become a favourite from the BLCC range.

Published in 1930, The Secret of High Eldersham seems at first to be a typical Golden Age murder mystery and High Eldersham itself to be a typical English village. We soon discover that neither of those things are true. The novel opens with the murder of Samuel Whitehead, the landlord of the Rose and Crown – and a newcomer to the village. Whitehead has been stabbed to death inside the inn and in the absence of any clues as to the motive or suspect, the local police call in Detective Inspector Young of Scotland Yard.

As Young begins to investigate, he can’t help feeling that there’s something sinister about High Eldersham. Why has it acquired such a strange reputation? Why do outsiders ‘never prosper’ in this quiet little East Anglian village? When, in the course of his inquiries, he notices something that makes him question what is really going on in High Eldersham, he summons his friend Desmond Merrion to come and help him uncover the truth.

This is apparently the first in a whole series of novels featuring the character of Desmond Merrion, amateur detective and former military intelligence officer. I found him quite bland in comparison with other fictional detectives, but in some ways that was probably a good thing as there was nothing annoying about him either – he just quietly gets on with the job of detecting! He also has a very likeable valet, Newport, who is as much a friend as a servant and who goes off and does some investigating of his own. It’s a very male-dominated novel, but there is one female character, Mavis Owerton, who has an important part to play in the story – beyond just providing a convenient love interest for several of the male characters.

Despite the murder which is committed at the beginning of the novel, this is much more of a thriller than a murder mystery and Merrion and Young become more concerned with discovering what the people of High Eldersham are trying to hide rather than finding out who killed Samuel Whitehead. I didn’t really have a problem with this as I do like either sort of crime novel, but I was still disappointed that the other elements of the story started to dominate to the point where we lost sight of the murder almost completely.

I found it very easy to guess what sort of crime was taking place in the village, but maybe it would have been less obvious to 1930s readers. There’s also another subplot, which has a hint of a supernatural element. I understood the relevance of this to the story and it does contribute to the eerie atmosphere of High Eldersham, which was already a creepy place due to its isolation and hostility to strangers, but I thought it was just one layer too many. There was too much time spent racing around on yachts and speedboats for my liking as well, although that’s probably just me – I’ve written before about my aversion to books about sailing!

I did like Miles Burton’s writing and I would read more of his books, but The Secret of High Eldersham wasn’t really for me. Death in the Tunnel sounds more appealing so maybe I’ll try that one.

Rákossy by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland’s many historical novels cover a wide range of time periods and settings. So far I have only read two of them: City of God, a story of Rome and the Borgias, and Hammer for Princes, set in 12th century England in the period known as the Anarchy. My third Holland novel, Rákossy, takes place in Hungary during the Ottoman Wars of the 1520s. Not having read many books set in Hungary, I was looking forward to something different and to learning something new.

The title character is János Rákossy, a Magyar border lord trying to protect his lands from the threat of Turkish invasion. He is disappointed with the lack of help from the rest of Europe whom he feels are leaving Hungary to fend for itself and he knows he can’t rely on the support of his neighbouring barons either. All he can do is continue to negotiate treaties, train his knights, carry out raids, try to build alliances, and do whatever else is necessary to defend his castle and his people.

Rákossy is not the sort of man who is easy to like. He is ruthless, cold, cynical and violent towards both men and women. As another character says of him:

“The people in the village think that he sold his soul to the Devil for a charmed life and fortune in battle. The Turks, I’m told, believe so too. I think it’s possibly the only point of agreement between them.”

He does have some good qualities – he’s clever and shrewd and his courage is not in question – but he is certainly not someone I could consider to be a hero. This seems to be normal for a Cecelia Holland protagonist, though; I had similar feelings about Nicholas in City of God and Fulk in Hammer for Princes. She seems to excel at deliberately creating characters who are unappealing, morally ambiguous and whose motives are not always clear. But at least if her central characters are not very likeable, they are still interesting and complex.

Of the other characters in the novel, two stand out. One is Denis, Rákossy’s brother, a sensitive man who prefers books to warfare and doesn’t always approve of or agree with Rákossy’s actions. The other is Catharine de Buñez, believed to be an illegitimate daughter of the King of Aragon, who marries Rákossy early in the novel. As far as I can tell, most of the major characters in the book are fictional, although the story is based on fact, giving us an idea of the situation on the Hungary-Turkey border leading up to the Battle of Mohács in 1526. If you know what the outcome of that battle is going to be, it does affect how you might view Rákossy’s negotiations and military preparations throughout the novel, but either way you can admire what he is trying to do for his country.

I didn’t find this book particularly enjoyable, mainly because I thought it was very bleak and also because it didn’t seem to have any sort of plot beyond a string of raids and battles. It was one of Cecelia Holland’s earliest novels, though – published in 1967 – and based on the others I’ve read I think they do get better. I don’t think she’ll ever become a favourite author as her writing lacks the warmth and emotion I prefer, but I’m still looking forward to reading more of her books because her subjects and settings all sound so intriguing. I have a NetGalley copy of The Soul Thief, which is about to be reissued by Canelo, so I will be reading that one next.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Fight Club to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

It’s the first Saturday 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 we are starting with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. I’ve never read this book (or seen the film) and I’m not really interested in reading it, but I can see from Goodreads that it’s about an ‘enigmatic young man who holds secret after-hours boxing matches in the basement of bars’.

For my first link, I’ve chosen another book about a fighter – Warwyck’s Wife by Rosalind Laker. The protagonist (I refuse to call him a hero) is a boxer in the 1820s and although I have little interest in boxing, I did find it fascinating to read about what the sport involved in its early days.

At the beginning of the book he buys a woman at auction who has been put up for sale by her husband, a custom which, unfortunately, really did take place in the 19th century. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy opens with a very similar scene in which Michael Henchard sells his wife at a country fair, an impulsive act which he quickly regrets.

Like most of Hardy’s novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge is set in his fictional Wessex, based on the real landscape of south and south-west England. Another Victorian author who set several of his books in an imaginary region is Anthony Trollope. His Chronicles of Barsetshire take place in and around the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The first book in the series is The Warden.

The warden of the title is the Reverend Septimus Harding (one of my favourite Trollope characters). Another novel with a clergyman as the main character is The Mysteries of Glass by Sue Gee, which I remember as a beautifully written, though very slow-paced, novel. Looking back at my review, I said at the time that “Although I was reading this book in July, I could still picture the cold, wintry landscape.”

Today, I don’t need a book to show me a snowy landscape – I can see plenty of snow just by looking out of my window! Thinking of other novels that have a wintry setting and atmosphere, though, leads me to the next book in my chain: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a magical story inspired by a Russian fairy tale.

Staying on the same theme, another book with the word ‘Snow’ in the title is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. This one is not a wintry read, though – it’s a novel set in 1820s China in which a girl communicates with her friend through messages written on a silk fan.

That’s my chain for this month! My links have included boxing, wife-selling, fictional lands, the church and snow.

In March we will be starting with The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper.

My Commonplace Book: January 2019

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

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

~

“You think you’re very clever, Carlton,” she said. “And so you are, my dear, as a rule. But it’s not very clever to underestimate one’s opponent. That’s one of the most elementary of tactical errors, isn’t it?”

Rogues’ Holiday by Maxwell March (1935)

~

Hatshepsut

Success in Egypt was an abstract for which others could easily take credit, leaving the real person responsible for some actions or monuments unknowable for generations, lost to cultural memory, making Hatshepsut’s name more unpronounceable as the generations crept by. Doing everything right ensured Hatshepsut’s lost legacy.

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney (2018)

~

She thought – was this religion? – a snare to make one fall into the hands of one’s enemies? Were holy things always to be abused, and words of love and worship turned into a death-trap? Should one man’s belief be set up against another’s, and men kill each other for not holding the same ideas, it would mean wars without end throughout the world, for it was the glory of men’s minds to hold different thoughts, and the only thing by which they could be judged was their actions, right or wrong.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin (1948)

~

ABC Railway Guide

“Words, mademoiselle, are only the outer clothing of ideas.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie (1936)

~

The sand itself, in contrast with the surrounding sea, seemed the home of weird noises, compounded of the ceaseless lapping of the ripples on the edge of it, the eerie cries of unseen gulls, and the intermittent wail of the distant lighthouse. It was an uncanny feeling, alone on this lost corner of the earth, which belonged neither to the realm of the sea or of the land.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton (1930)

~

‘We all think, Leo, but none of us know. Matters of the heart are like the river. They bend this way and then that way, and sometimes there are rocks around the corner. Sometimes. But sometimes not. You never know.’

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve (2018)

~

Sometimes during a great emotional crisis the mind rallies. The gentlest spirit sometimes revives as though it had received from some unsuspected depth a new lease of courage and endurance.
It is at such times that hitherto helpless, unsophisticated souls goaded by circumstances so terrible as to be almost outside their comprehension make an unexpected stand, receiving from their reserves a small measure of that exhilaration in the face of danger normally possessed only by their stronger brethren.

The Devil and Her Son by Maxwell March (1936)

~

There is no principle worth having that does not exact a price. We must recognise the cost of our principles and take responsibility for that cost. We must not deny the consequences of our own actions.

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (2014)

~

Radcot Bridge

What we see on a map is only the half of it. A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (2018)

~

Here lay the tragedy. Western man is so constituted that he cannot abide contentment. It is the unforgivable sin. He must forever strive towards some unseen goal, whether it be material comfort, a greater and purer God, or some weapon that will make him master of the universe. As he becomes more conscious he becomes more restless, more grasping, forever finding fault with the warm dust from which he sprang and to which he must return, forever desirous of improving and so enslaving his fellow-men.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

~

Favourite books read in January:

The ABC Murders, Once Upon a River

Where did my reading take me in January?

England, Ancient Egypt, Italy, Greece

Authors read for the first time in January:

Kara Cooney, Sarah Moss, Miles Burton, Alex Reeve

~

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

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

The House on Half Moon Street is both an interesting historical crime novel set in Victorian London and a sensitive exploration of what it means to be transgender in a less enlightened time. This is apparently the first in a planned series and I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

Our hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner’s assistant in 1880s London. As the novel opens, the body of a man washed up by the Thames has been brought to the hospital where Leo works. Identified as Jack Flowers and believed to have fallen into the river accidentally, the man’s death seems to be an unfortunate tragedy, but not something which affects Leo personally. However, the next body to arrive is that of a woman – a woman who happens to be the love of Leo’s life, Maria Milanes, and who appears to have been murdered.

Before her death, Maria was a prostitute at a brothel on Half Moon Street, but that didn’t matter to Leo. He loved her and knew that she loved him. Maria was one of the few people he had trusted with his secret, one of the few people who knew that Leo Stanhope was born Charlotte Pritchard. Now Maria is gone and Leo vows to find out who has killed her. Joining forces with pie maker Rosie, Jack Flowers’ widow, he begins to uncover some links between both deaths – but at the same time he must ensure that his own secret is not uncovered, because the truth could have serious consequences.

On one level, as I’ve said, this is a compelling and well-constructed murder mystery. Although I found the pace a bit slow at times, I did enjoy watching Leo move around Victorian London, looking for clues in the Half Moon Street brothel, playing chess with his friend Jacob and word games with his landlord’s daughter in the pharmacy where he lodges, or paying a visit to the midwife and abortionist Madame Moreau, whom he hopes may be able to shed some light on the situation. All of these people and locations are vividly described and all play their part in Leo’s investigations.

Leo himself is easy to like and to warm to; he narrates his story in the first person, letting us into his mind and his heart. I know things are not perfect for transgender people today and that they still face a lot of prejudice, obstacles and challenges, but I can hardly imagine how difficult life must have been for people like Leo who lived more than a hundred years ago. I admired him for his courage in being true to himself and not just continuing to be someone he was not; I was sorry for the sacrifices he’d had to make in adopting his true male identity and the lack of support he received from those he should have been able to rely on; and I was afraid for him too, because he is in such a vulnerable position.

I should warn you that due to the nature of the story, the type of mystery it is and Leo’s vulnerability, the novel does become very dark in places. Although I didn’t find it unnecessarily graphic or violent, there are still a few scenes which are quite disturbing. The Victorian era was certainly not the safest time in which to live if you were seen as different in any way. I’m sure Leo will have more ordeals to go through as the series progresses, but I hope there will be some happiness in store for him too.

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

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten recent additions to my TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. It’s perfect for those of us who have both a love of books and a love of lists! This week’s topic is…

The Ten Most Recent Additions to My To-Read List

~

In no particular order, here are ten books I’ve acquired recently:

1. Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac – All of the Lorac novels published as British Library Crime Classics sound intriguing, so I’m looking forward to trying this one.

2. The Binding by Bridget Collins – I’m reading this now. I’m a few chapters into it and although it sounded fascinating, I’m not sure that it’s really my sort of thing.

3. The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman – This non-fiction book appealed to me when I saw it on NetGalley. I hope it’s good!

4. The Horseman by Tim Pears – This is the first in a trilogy, so if I enjoy it I’ll be looking for the other two.

5. A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle – I’ve received a review copy of this new novel about Richard II.

6. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer – I’m gradually building up my Georgette Heyer collection and this is one I’ve been particularly looking forward to reading.

7. Eleanor the Queen by Norah Lofts – I’ve been interested in trying something by Norah Lofts for a long time and recently came across a copy of this book about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

8. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik – I really need to make some progress with my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and this book was on last year’s shortlist for the prize.

9. The Reckoning by Edith Wharton – Part of the Penguin Little Black Classics series, this book contains two short stories by Edith Wharton.

10. Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard – This is the fourth book in the Cazalet Chronicles and I still have the third to read before I can start this one.

~

Have you read any of these? What have you added to your TBR recently?

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

When I read about the Read Christie 2019 Challenge hosted at www.agathachristie.com – the idea being to tick off twelve books from twelve different categories over the course of the year – I was immediately tempted to join in. I didn’t want to think of it as a challenge as such, or make a definite commitment, but I thought I could use the monthly prompts to get through some of the many Christies I still haven’t read. This month’s category is “a recent TV adaptation” and the suggested book is The ABC Murders. I had started to watch the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders which was shown at Christmas, but struggled to get into it, so I thought I would try the book instead. And what a great book it is!

The murder of Alice Ascher in her small tobacconist shop in the town of Andover seems as though it should be an easy one to solve. There is an obvious culprit – the woman’s drunken husband – and he would certainly have been the prime suspect, if not for a mysterious coincidence which happened just days before the murder. Hercule Poirot had received a typewritten letter signed simply A.B.C. and warning of a crime to be committed in Andover on that particular date – and beside the body of the dead woman was a copy of the ABC Railway Guide.

But this will not be the only murder to take place:

‘I admit,’ I said, ‘that a second murder in a book often cheers things up. If the murder happens in the first chapter, and you have to follow up everybody’s alibi until the last page but one – well, it does get a bit tedious.’

When a similar letter arrives soon afterwards giving advance warning of a second murder which will happen in Bexhill, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Poirot when the second victim has a name beginning with B and when another ABC Guide is found next to the body. Convinced now that the killer is following an alphabetical pattern, Poirot must uncover his or her identity before they get all the way to Z.

This is one of several Poirot novels narrated by Captain Hastings (although there are a few chapters written from the perspective of other characters). I always seem to enjoy the ones with Hastings, partly because he, like the reader, is often in the dark and needs Poirot to explain things to him, but also because I think Poirot having a friend to discuss things with gives these books a different dynamic to the ones where he is working entirely on his own amongst strangers. Sometimes Hastings can make an observation or suggestion which proves to be useful later on, as he does once or twice in this book. Inspector Crome is investigating too, and a ‘legion’ of the victims’ families and friends is also formed to see whether they can shed any light on the situation.

What makes this book so intriguing is that each of the murders which takes place seems unrelated to the others, apart from the ABC theme and the letters sent to Poirot. They each have a separate set of suspects, all with their own motives, but what Poirot needs to do is find something which links them all to one man or woman – the mysterious A.B.C. I found this a particularly clever Christie novel and didn’t come close to solving it. I allowed myself to be sent in completely the wrong direction by the red herrings and took everything at face value; in fact, for a long time I thought I was reading a different sort of mystery entirely.

I loved this one and I think I did the right thing in reading it before trying to watch the adaptation again. I’m planning to read another Christie novel in February, although I don’t know what it will be yet – I’m waiting to see what the chosen category will be for the next stage of the challenge.