My Commonplace Book: April 2023

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

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


It is quite possible to live happily with a person who does not think as you do about the eternal verities, but it is not possible to live happily with someone who wants the window open when you want it shut, or shut when you want it open, or with someone who likes a fire when you don’t, or doesn’t like it when you do.

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1940)


“Somehow I don’t dare. It’s queer. I’ve always thought that innocent persons who became involved with criminals were absolutely idiotic not to go to the police first thing instead of muddling along, getting in worse stews. But here I am. Afraid – of what I don’t know.”

The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes (1940)


In medicine or in any other enquiry, you didn’t go looking for what you wanted to be true, not least because that way you might miss the truth when it was right in front of you.

Voices of the Dead by Ambrose Parry (2023)


Siege of Badajoz by Richard Caton Woodville Jr

The shops displayed the most attractive wares; the cafés set out their little tables on either side of the Prado; guitar-players sang to any party of officers who looked as though they might be good for a peseta or two; the ladies of the town paraded in their best silk petticoats, and smartest satin bodices, flirting their fans, setting the long fringes on their skirts swinging with the provocative play of their hips; lemonade-sellers, in sleeveless waistcoats and white kilts, went up and down, doing a roaring trade under the avenues of trees; the gayest mats were hung out as sunblinds, creating a strange medley of bright hues in streets where the houses were already stained every colour of the rainbow.

The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer (1940)


All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what they see in the proper colours. They do not know what goes on on the stage, still less what goes on in the audience. Show them a black-and-white record of it afterwards, and they will believe you; but even then they will be unable to interpret what they see.

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr (1939)


“You did, in fact, everything you set out to do.”

“There’s only one thing that’s more important,” he answered, “and that is, after you’ve done what you set out to do, to feel that it’s been worth doing.”

Random Harvest by James Hilton (1941)


Arid land in the Flinders Ranges, Australia

Billy wonders if the rest of his life will be spent crossing back and forth across the plain, which he has heard described as an empty wasteland but knows to be dense with motion: the motion of ancestors, spirits, the animals that should be here and the animals that shouldn’t, songs, stories, people, goods, water, minerals, the railway, the roads, stock tracks, fire, and the celestial bodies. When he crosses the plain, he both lives inside this density and passes over it.

The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane (2022)


Some people tell you that they are not influenced by the atmosphere around them. They are quite mistaken. We are all more or less affected by the spoken or unspoken thoughts of others.

Inquest by Henrietta Clandon (1933)


“It’s no good going back over the past. It’s the future one has to live for.”

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie (1939)


Favourite books read in April:

The Bird in the Tree, The Black Spectacles, Random Harvest and Voices of the Dead

Places visited in my April reading:

England, US, Scotland, Spain, France, Australia

Authors read for the first time in April:

Fiona McFarlane


Reading notes: My April began with some 1940 novels for 1940 Club, then I seemed to stay around that era for most of the month. I only managed to read one new author, but sometimes it’s comforting to stick to authors you already know and enjoy. I’m starting my May reading with a re-read of one of my favourite Daphne du Maurier books for Heavenali’s DDM Reading Week, but I don’t have any plans other than that.

How was your April? What are you hoping to read in May?

Prize Women by Caroline Lea

Caroline Lea chooses such interesting subjects and settings for her novels. Her first, The Glass Woman, was a Gothic novel set in 17th century Iceland, and her second, The Metal Heart, explored the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. In her latest novel, Prize Women, she takes us to Canada in the early 20th century and introduces us to two women who are taking part in a very unusual contest: the Great Stork Derby.

When Canadian millionaire Charles Vance Millar dies in 1926, he leaves behind a very controversial will. He bequeaths shares in a brewery to a group of teetotal ministers, a house in Jamaica to three men who hate each other, jockey club stocks to anti-horse racing campaigners – and in the strangest bequest of all, he leaves a large sum of money to the Toronto woman who gives birth to the most children in a ten year period.

Lily di Marco is trapped in an unhappy marriage so when her town is hit by an earthquake, she sees a chance to escape and flees to Toronto with her young son. Arriving in the city tired and homeless, Lily meets Mae Thebault, the wife of a wealthy factory owner, who agrees to let Lily stay with them in return for helping to take care of the Thebaults’ five children. Despite their differences in background and social status, Lily and Mae quickly become close friends – but then comes the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

By this point Lily already has several babies who will count towards the Great Stork Derby and decides to enter the contest in the hope of winning the money and improving the lives of herself and her children. But the Thebaults’ financial situation has also changed and Mae finds herself in desperate need of money too. Soon the former best friends are competing against each other, but with the outcome due to be decided by a jury, which of the women – if either – will be declared the winner?

Lily’s story is very moving and often heartbreaking. It’s so sad to see the way she is treated by her violent, alcoholic husband, the racism and discrimination she faces due to her Italian background, the squalid, impoverished surroundings she lives in and the impact all of this has on the health and wellbeing of her children. I was in tears several times, so be prepared – this is not exactly a cheerful, uplifting read! Mae also has obstacles to overcome and suffers some personal traumas, but her story didn’t affect me the way Lily’s did and the way she behaved during the later stages of the contest annoyed me, even while I understood her reasons. Maybe because the two women end up in direct competition with each other, it makes it difficult to side with both of them at the same time.

The Great Stork Derby itself – something that really happened, by the way – is a cruel and irresponsible concept in many ways, but even more cruel were the modifications made to the will by the courts, stating that children who were stillborn or born outside of wedlock wouldn’t count. Also, there was no consideration given to the effect on women’s bodies of so many pregnancies in a short space of time, or how poor families would afford to feed so many children if they didn’t win the prize money. Naturally, the contest received a lot of media attention at the time and also caused a lot of debate around contraception and women’s rights.

I enjoyed this book, despite the sadness, and I enjoyed getting to know Lily and Mae. However, there was one aspect of their storyline that I found unconvincing and slightly contrived; it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, but it was the only thing I didn’t like in this otherwise excellent novel.

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

This is book 14/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

April’s theme for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is poison, but I have read all of the suggested titles on the official challenge page, some quite recently. As I missed taking part last month, I decided to read the book I had planned to read in March instead – Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy. There’s a new BBC adaptation coming later this year and I always prefer to read before watching, if possible!

Murder is Easy is one of the Christie novels that stars neither of her most famous detectives, Poirot or Miss Marple – although it does feature another of her recurring characters, Superintendent Battle. However, even he doesn’t appear until very near the end and plays no part in actually solving the mystery. Instead, almost the entire novel is written from the perspective of Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired police officer and amateur detective.

At the beginning of the novel, Luke has just returned to England from India and is taking a train to London, where he finds himself sharing a carriage with an old lady who introduces herself as Miss Pinkerton. She confides in him that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a serial killer in her village. Miss Pinkerton believes that this person – whom she doesn’t name – has murdered at least three people already and has chosen as their next victim the village doctor, Dr Humbleby. Luke assumes she has an overactive imagination, but the next day he reads in the newspaper that a Miss Pinkerton has been hit by a car and killed crossing the road outside Scotland Yard – and when news of the death of Dr Humbleby in the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe follows, he becomes convinced that she was telling the truth after all.

Determined to find out more, Luke heads for Wychwood, where he stays with a friend’s cousin, Bridget Conway, who happens to be engaged to the local lord of the manor. Luke is posing as an author researching a new book on witchcraft and superstition, but Bridget guesses the real reason for his visit and together they begin to investigate the recent deaths.

I really enjoyed this book and for once I correctly identified the murderer, though more through instinct than because I had spotted any particular clue. There are plenty of suspects ranging from the solicitor Mr Abbot and the late Dr Humbleby’s younger partner, Dr Thomas, to the widower Major Horton and the antiques dealer Mr Ellsworthy, who dabbles in black magic. We are told that the village of Wychwood has connections with witchcraft and the occult, but we don’t really explore that in any depth and the setting doesn’t have quite the same eerie atmosphere as the village in Christie’s The Pale Horse.

While Miss Marple doesn’t appear in this book, I found Miss Pinkerton a very Marple-ish character – an old lady with a shrewd mind and sharp observational skills – and was sorry she was killed so early in the story. Luke himself does very little detecting – despite interviewing all of the suspects, he doesn’t arrive at the right solution until somebody else reaches it first – but I still enjoyed following the progress of his investigations. And knowing that Christie often likes to work a nursery rhyme into the text or title of her novels, I was intrigued to come across the lines “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell; The reason why I cannot tell” – the same lines that are quoted in John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles, which I coincidentally read just last week!

Although I didn’t choose Murder is Easy specifically to fit this month’s Read Christie theme, I was pleased to find that poison does feature in the plot, albeit in a small way. The May prompt is ‘betrayal’, if you want to take part.

Atalanta by Jennifer Saint

Having enjoyed Jennifer Saint’s first two novels, Ariadne and Elektra, I was looking forward to reading her third one, Atalanta. Like the others, it explores the life of a woman from Greek mythology, in this case Atalanta, famous as a hunter, a runner and the only female Argonaut.

Daughter of the King of Arcadia, the baby Atalanta is left to die on a mountain because her father had hoped for a son. Rescued by bears and raised along with their cubs, Atalanta grows up under the watchful eye of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, who later takes her to live amongst the nymphs in the forest. As she reaches adulthood, it is clear that Atalanta possesses special skills in hunting, shooting and running. Elsewhere, Jason is preparing to set out aboard the Argo on his mission to obtain the Golden Fleece from the King of Colchis. With the blessing of Artemis, Atalanta joins the quest, but it won’t be easy to persuade Jason and his men to accept her as a fellow Argonaut.

I won’t go into all the details of the myth here, but Saint incorporates most of the elements that are often associated with Atalanta: the Calydonian boar hunt, her relationship with the Argonaut Meleager, the footrace and the golden apples. I say ‘often’ because, as with many Greek myths, there are different versions of Atalanta’s story. In some, she isn’t mentioned as part of the Argonaut legend at all; in others, she is the daughter of the King of Boeotia rather than Arcadia. I have read about Atalanta before, in Emily Hauser’s For the Winner, and I think overall I preferred that book which was more of a ‘reimagining’ with lots of extra little touches rather than this one which I would describe as a straightforward ‘retelling’. Still, it’s interesting to see how different authors choose to approach the same myth, what they include and leave out and how they interpret the actions and motivations of the characters.

I liked this book more than Elektra, but not as much as Ariadne. I felt that it was a bit slow to get started – the section set in the woods with the nymphs seemed to last forever – but once Atalanta joined the Argonauts on their quest it all became much more compelling. Although romance isn’t a big part of Atalanta’s story, I also enjoyed following her relationships with first Meleager and then Hippomenes and I appreciated the way Saint found a way to retell the myth from a feminist perspective without portraying all of the men in a negative light. And it’s always good to read a book about Greek mythology that doesn’t involve the Trojan War – not that it’s not interesting, but there have been so many Troy novels in the last few years I don’t think there’s really any need for any more.

This is not my favourite Jennifer Saint book, then, but it’s still an interesting read, particularly if you know nothing about Atalanta and her story. Now I’m looking forward to seeing which Greek heroine Saint will write about next.

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

Historical Musings #79: The CWA Historical Dagger Longlist 2023

Welcome to my series of posts on all things historical fiction!

Just a quick post this month as the Crime Writers’ Association revealed the longlists for their 2023 Dagger awards yesterday. I don’t usually follow the CWA awards, but noticed that I had read three of the books longlisted in this year’s Historical Dagger category and this made me curious about the other titles, particularly as I haven’t even heard of some of them!

The Historical Dagger is awarded to ‘the best historical crime novel, first published in the UK in English during the judging period, set in any period up to 50 years prior to the year in which the award will be made’. Here are the twelve books on the 2023 longlist:

The Darkest Sin by DV Bishop
Blackstone Fell by Martin Edwards
Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray
The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewers
The Bookseller of Inverness by SG MacLean
The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola
Death at the Dolphin by Gretta Mulrooney
The Homes by JB Mylet
The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra
Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass
Hear No Evil by Sarah Smith
The Mushroom Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu


Of the three books I have read, two of them – The Clockwork Girl, an atmospheric Gothic novel inspired by the real life case of the ‘Vanishing Children of Paris’ and the 18th century advances in the creation of automata, and Blue Water, a wonderful historical mystery set during a long sea voyage in 1794 – were on my Books of the Year list for 2022. The other, The Bookseller of Inverness, I found interesting for the setting (Scotland in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion) but not a particularly strong mystery.

I know very little about any of the other longlisted books. I probably won’t read Blackstone Fell as I wasn’t all that impressed with the previous Martin Edwards book, Mortmain Hall, but if you’ve read any of the others please let me know what you thought!

The shortlist will be announced on 12th May and the winner on 6th July. More details and the full lists of nominees for all of the other Dagger categories can be found on the CWA website.

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

This is only the second book I’ve read by the very prolific John Dickson Carr, who also wrote under several pseudonyms including Carter Dickson. The first one I read was It Walks By Night, one of his Henri Bencolin mysteries, and although I enjoyed it overall, I found the plot too far-fetched and I didn’t much like Bencolin himself. The Black Spectacles, first published in 1939 and recently reissued as a British Library Crime Classic, is from a different series, featuring a different detective – Dr Gideon Fell – so I hoped it would be more to my taste. And it was – I loved it!

The novel is set in the small English village of Sodbury Cross, where a child has died after eating poisoned chocolates. The culprit has not been found, but suspicion has fallen on Marjorie Wells, because she was the one who sent the little boy to the shop to buy chocolates that day. Marjorie’s uncle, Marcus Chesney, believes that most people see the world through ‘black spectacles’, unable to correctly observe what is right in front of their eyes. To prove his point, he decides to stage a performance showing exactly how the real chocolates were substituted with the poisoned ones – and invites Marjorie, her fiancé George Harding and a family friend, Professor Ingram, along to watch. The performance is being filmed with a cine-camera and Marcus has compiled a list of questions to test the observational skills of the three people watching. But when he is found dead, murdered in full view of both the camera and his audience, each of the three witnesses seems to have seen something completely different!

I’ve said that this is a Dr Gideon Fell mystery, but Fell himself doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel. Until that point, the investigations are handled by Inspector Elliot of Scotland Yard, who seems quite competent and thorough…until we discover that he is not being entirely honest with the reader. By the time Fell is brought into the story, most of the clues are in place, but Elliot and the local Sodbury Cross police have failed to interpret them correctly. I’m not surprised they were struggling, because this is a very clever mystery with lots of twists and turns and an ingenious solution. I certainly couldn’t solve it and had to wait for Fell to explain it all, which he does bit by bit as each piece of the puzzle falls into place. I was particularly impressed by a clue involving a clock, which I would never have worked out for myself.

There are so many other things I loved about this book. Carr does an excellent job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of a little English village where the people are trying to come to terms with the discovery that there’s a poisoner in their midst. Some references to real life crimes and poisoning cases are worked into the plot – in particular the case of Christiana Edmunds, who was known as the ‘Chocolate Cream Killer’. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of 1930s film and camera technology, with the recording made of Marcus Chesney’s dramatic scene playing a very important part in the solving of the mystery.

Having enjoyed The Black Spectacles so much, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the Gideon Fell mysteries soon. You may want to note that this book has also been published in the US as The Problem of the Green Capsule, just in case anyone buys the same book twice!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, Rogue Male, was the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. Not knowing much about it, I had added it to my Classics Club list after seeing it included in The Guardian’s Top 10 novels of the 1930s. It sounded very like The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, which I thought was fun, if a bit repetitive, but while there are definitely some similarities, I found Rogue Male a more satisfying book.

The novel opens in 1938 just after our narrator has been caught aiming a gun at the dictator of an unspecified European country. Despite insisting that he wasn’t planning to pull the trigger and was just enjoying the thrill of ‘hunting the biggest game on earth’, the narrator is tortured and thrown over a cliff, where he is left to die. Somehow, he survives and manages to make his way back to London. On his arrival, he discovers that agents of the dictator he’d tried to shoot have followed him to England. Staying in London is obviously now out of the question, so he heads for the Dorset countryside where he is sure his pursuers will never be able to find him.

The identity of the protagonist’s target is kept carefully hidden, with very few clues throughout the novel, but it’s not difficult to guess who it was supposed to be and Household later confirmed that it was Hitler. As the book was published just before the start of World War II, it’s easy to see why he decided to be vague about it. His reasons for also leaving the narrator unnamed are less clear, but it does add an extra layer of mystery to the novel; while the narrator hides himself from the enemy agents, he also reveals very little of himself to the reader, leaving us wondering who he really is and what his true motives were for carrying out the assassination attempt.

For such a short book (around 200 pages), there’s a lot of plot packed between its covers and the tension builds as we wait to see whether he can continue to evade his pursuers. There’s a sinister villain, Major Quive-Smith who, like everything and everyone else in the book, is shrouded in mystery: we don’t know his nationality, his background or who he represents – all we do know is that he’s determined to force a confession from the narrator that the British government was behind the assassination attempt, something the narrator continues to deny even while his real motives are slow to emerge. Yet although I did enjoy the book, I still felt that there was something missing. The vagueness of it all, and the guarded and secretive nature of the protagonist, made it difficult for me to care what happened to him on an emotional level and this meant I found the story slightly less thrilling than I would have liked.

This book was adapted for film in 1941, under the title Man Hunt, and again as a BBC adaptation, Rogue Male, in 1976. The BBC version stars Peter O’Toole, with Alastair Sim as the Earl (a character who doesn’t appear in the book). It’s on YouTube and definitely worth watching. I’ve also discovered there’s a sequel to this novel called Rogue Justice, published much later in 1982, which is more open about the target being Hitler. I’m not sure if I want to read that one as the reviews aren’t very positive, but it seems Household was quite a prolific author, with more than twenty books published for adults and young adults, so I’ll see if any of his others appeal.

This is book 37/50 read from my second Classics Club list.