Fortune by Amanda Smyth

My first book for this year’s 20 Books of Summer is also one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The winner is going to be revealed at the Borders Book Festival on Friday 17th June, so I wanted to read this one before the announcement. It’s the second of the four titles on the shortlist that I’ve read – the other is the excellent Rose Nicolson; I am currently halfway through the third, The Magician, but am not sure if I’ll finish it in time, and I won’t get to the fourth one, News of the Dead, now either.

Anyway, Fortune is set in Trinidad in the 1920s and begins with a chance meeting between two men. One of them, Eddie Wade, has spent the last few years working in the US oilfields and has recently returned home, hoping to make his fortune on the island. He’s convinced that the land beneath Sonny Chatterjee’s cocoa plantation is rich in oil and is on the verge of persuading Sonny to let him start drilling when his truck breaks down on the road. Businessman Tito Fernandez stops to help and when he hears about Eddie’s project, he agrees to invest.

Soon Eddie and Tito are the best of friends and their trust in each other pays off when the oil begins to flow. However, as Eddie spends more and more time visiting the Fernandez family and becoming part of their social circle, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Tito’s beautiful wife, Ada – and the attraction is mutual.

The novel is inspired by a real event which took place in Trinidad in 1928, but I would recommend not looking it up before reading the book. Although I did eventually guess what was going to happen, I’m glad I didn’t know for certain as it would have taken away some of the impact of the story. The characters also seem to be loosely based on real people, but with different names and obviously with fictitious storylines created around the historical facts.

I can’t think of any other books I’ve read set in Trinidad and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s a place I know very little about, but Amanda Smyth, who is an Irish-Trinidadian author, brings it to life beautifully – the landscape, the plants and wildlife, the bustling streets of Port of Spain, and the cultures, beliefs and traditions of the Trinidadian people. At the time of our story, the island is going through a period of change; the cocoa trees that had formed such an important part of the economy are dying and new sources of income are needed. With the growing popularity of cars and planes, Trinidad’s oil boom comes at just the right time. Smyth does a wonderful job of portraying the ambition and greed of the various oil prospectors, the reluctance of Sonny Chatterjee to give up on his cocoa farming and allow drilling on his land, the fears of his wife Sita, who is mistrustful and suspicious of the whole business, and the excitement the characters feel when the first well is struck.

The tensions between the characters are also very well done; the relationship between Eddie and Ada develops slowly but once their affair begins they take so many risks it seems inevitable that Tito will find out and you wonder what will happen when he does. The personal stories of the characters play out against the backdrop of the oil rush, with all the different elements of the novel falling into place to build towards a dramatic conclusion. Although I still prefer Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, this is an impressive novel too and while it hadn’t sounded very appealing to me at first, I can see now why the Walter Scott Prize judges decided to shortlist it.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 26/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The May theme for Read Christie 2022 is “a story set in Europe” and The Murder on the Links is the perfect choice as the story takes place almost entirely in France.

First published in 1923, this is a very early Poirot novel (just the second in the series, in fact) and one of several to be narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings, a close friend of Poirot’s, is on his way home to England from France when he meets a girl on the train who introduces herself only as ‘Cinderella’. For Hastings, it’s love at first sight, but when they part ways he doesn’t expect to ever see her again.

The next day, Hastings learns that Poirot has just received a letter from a Mr Paul Renauld requesting him to come to his home in France as soon as possible because he believes his life is in danger. The two set off at once, only to discover that Renauld had been murdered the night before, his body found on the new golf course which is under construction near his house. There are several suspects, but when Cinderella reappears and seems to have some involvement in the murder, Hastings will have to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to Poirot.

I enjoyed this, although I don’t think it’s one of the better Poirot novels I’ve read. None of the characters are particularly memorable or appealing; her characterisation would be stronger in later books in the series – maybe at this early stage she was still concentrating on developing the character of Poirot himself. In this book he has a rival – the French detective Monsieur Giraud – and we can see the contrast between their detecting methods. Poirot refers to Giraud as ‘a human foxhound’, someone who ‘sniffs out’ clues like footprints and cigarette ends while failing to see the bigger picture or to consider motive and psychology as well as physical evidence. Meanwhile, Giraud is equally scornful of Poirot’s approach to crime-solving. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of the two detectives will eventually solve the mystery!

I usually like the books narrated by Hastings, who is a sort of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes. He provides a viewpoint close to Poirot, while also being as mystified as we are by Poirot’s methods and deductions. I did find him slightly irritating in this book, with his tendency to instantly fall in love with every young woman he meets, but the romantic subplot does have a purpose as it leads to Hastings departing for Argentina, only to make occasional reappearances for the rest of the series.

Overall, this is a typically clever and entertaining Christie novel, but probably not one that I’ll be tempted to re-read. As a final note, don’t be put off by the many covers of this book that show people playing golf – apart from the golf course being the location of the dead body, golf has absolutely nothing to do with the plot!

The House of Footsteps by Mathew West

“You make it sound like I’m on my way to Castle Dracula,” says Simon Christie, the narrator of Mathew West’s debut novel The House of Foosteps, after arriving in the remote village of Cobsfoot during a funeral procession and taking refuge in the nearest tavern where he asks for directions to Thistlecrook House – “a strange place, where the master takes dark, wild moods”. It’s 1923 and Simon has been sent by his auction house to evaluate a collection of rare artworks owned by the Mordrake family – and as he enters Thistlecrook House for the first time and makes the acquaintance of the reclusive, secretive Victor Mordrake, it was Dracula that continued to come to mind.

As I read on, I was reminded of other classic Gothic novels and ghost stories and each chapter seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Who is Amy, the beautiful young woman who sits curled up in a chair in the library every evening, begging Simon not to mention her presence to anyone else in the house? What really happened to Victor’s wife, said to have drowned in a frozen lake on the estate? What causes the dark shadows Simon can see under his bedroom door every night? And why does Victor, a vegetarian who can’t even bear having dead flowers in the house, have a whole collection of paintings depicting violent and macabre biblical scenes?

The answers to some of the novel’s many mysteries are revealed gradually as the story unfolds. Others are still unanswered at the end, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about what exactly was going on at Thistlecrook House. I do sometimes enjoy an ambiguous ending, but in this case I was disappointed that we weren’t given more clarity; I had been so intrigued by some of the strange happenings and really wanted to be given a proper explanation for them! However, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – and until I reached that unsatisfactory ending, I had been going to say that it was one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

The novel has a wonderfully dark and sinister atmosphere and despite being set in the 1920s, the remote location – a rural village in the far north of England, close to the Scottish border – creates the feeling that the story could be taking place in a much earlier period. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Simon’s actions and choices, I was always completely absorbed in his story, wondering who could and could not be trusted and watching the boundaries blur between reality and fantasy. If you’ve enjoyed books like The Woman in Black or The Haunting of Hill House I would recommend giving The House of Footsteps a go.

This is book 8/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

A new year means a new Agatha Christie reading challenge! After participating in all twelve monthly reads for Read Christie 2021, I’m not planning to do the same again this year – I do love Christie, but there are so many other authors I want to read too. However, I will still be dipping into Read Christie 2022 throughout the year whenever I’m tempted by the monthly theme. The topic for January is ‘A story inspired by Agatha’s travels’ and the suggested book is The Man in the Brown Suit, one that I hadn’t read before and that sounded quite appealing to me.

Published in 1924, this book is not part of the Poirot or Marple series, although it does feature another of Christie’s recurring characters, Colonel Race. Like They Came to Baghdad or The Secret Adversary, it’s more thriller than mystery; a murder does take place near the beginning, but this is only a starting point and not the main focus of the novel.

Most of the novel is narrated by Anne Beddingfield, the recently orphaned daughter of a famous archaeologist. Finding herself alone in the world, with a small inheritance to spend, Anne longs for an adventure to come her way so she can imitate the heroines of her favourite books and films. This wish becomes reality when she witnesses an accident in a London tube station and picks up a piece of paper dropped by the doctor who examines the victim. On this scrap of paper are some numbers and the words ‘Kilmorden Castle’; Anne is sure that these are clues and that she has found the adventure she’s been waiting for. When a woman is found dead the next day in the home of Sir Eustace Pedler, Member of Parliament, a man in a brown suit is suspected of the crime. Convinced that the two incidents are related, Anne deciphers the clues on the paper and boards a ship sailing to Cape Town, hoping to track down the brown-suited man.

Anne is a wonderful narrator and her intelligence, courage and quick wits mean that she is often – although not always – one step ahead of the villains. However, there’s also a second narrator and that is Sir Eustace Pedler. Sir Eustace’s narrative is interspersed with Anne’s and takes the form of a diary in which, in contrast with Anne, he describes his dislike of adventure, as well as his frustration with his annoying secretary Mr Pagett. The diary entries add a lot of humour to the story and I enjoyed hearing Sir Eustace’s voice now and then as a change from Anne’s.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I found particularly fun to read. Stolen diamonds, a revolution, travel through South Africa, a criminal mastermind known only as the ‘Colonel’…there’s such a lot happening and so many things to enjoy. The one aspect of the novel that I didn’t like was the romance between Anne and another character; I thought it seemed to come very suddenly out of nowhere and I was disappointed that Anne, being such a strong person in other respects, had the view that a woman should admire a man’s strength and prepare to be submissive.

Going back to the theme for this month’s read, this novel was inspired by a round-the-world trip taken by Agatha and her first husband Archie Christie in 1922. You can see the full list of categories for Read Christie 2022 at the bottom of the challenge page on the Agatha Christie website.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

Times past, times present, or times to come, were they not all one, if he had the power to make them so?

Part ghost story, part time-slip fantasy and part historical fiction, Margaret Irwin’s first novel from 1924, recently reissued with a pretty new cover, is a wonderful, dreamlike read.

Jan Challard is a young woman living in 1920s London and trying to find her place in the new society which has emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Life seems to be going well, but Jan feels restless: she is bored with her office job, bored with the nice, suitable young man who wants to marry her, and haunted by a face in a portrait – a Gentleman Unknown, who seems to be following her everywhere she goes.

In 1779, we meet another bored young woman: seventeen-year-old Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family with an estate in Berkshire. Juliana spends her days walking in the gardens of Chidleigh House and writing in her journal, while waiting for something more exciting to happen and remembering a line from her favourite childhood fairytale: “…still she sat and still she span, and still she wished for company”. Company does eventually arrive, but perhaps not in the way Juliana had expected.

First, following the death of Lord Chidleigh, Juliana’s eldest brother Lucian returns after a long absence to take up his father’s title and his inheritance. Stories of the wild, debauched lifestyle Lucian has been leading have reached the family and he receives a frosty welcome at Chidleigh House. Juliana is the only one who is happy to see him and as the brother and sister grow closer, something strange begins to happen: the centuries separating Juliana’s life from Jan’s seem to dissolve and merge. Jan can see Juliana and Juliana can see Jan, but which of them is the ghost and which of them is real?

This is a very short novel, but just the right length for the story – or stories – being told, and it really doesn’t need to be any longer. Jan’s story frames Juliana’s and is confined to a short section at the beginning of the book and another at the end; Margaret Irwin appears to be more comfortable writing about the eighteenth century (a period she obviously knew well and knew how to bring to life) and most of the novel concentrates on Juliana. I couldn’t help comparing this to most of the dual time-period books being written today, where I usually find that far too much time is spent on a weaker present day narrative, leaving me impatient to get back to the more interesting historical one. The structure of Still She Wished for Company is much more effective, in my opinion, as I could become fully immersed in Juliana’s story without being pulled out of it after every few chapters.

The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read. There are no obvious anachronisms, no dialogue that feels jarringly wrong for the time period…it was just a pleasure to read! The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!

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

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson – #1920Club

I wasn’t sure whether I would manage to read and review anything in time for this week’s 1920 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) but when I picked up E.F. Benson’s 1920 novel Queen Lucia I found it so entertaining and easy to read that I finished most of it in one day! Although I can’t quite say that I loved it, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment – something that would take my mind off the current situation for a while and whisk me away to another time and place.

That place is Riseholme, a quiet English village described by a newcomer as a “delicious, hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place, where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything,” but which, to the people who live there, is the centre of the universe. Life in Riseholme consists mainly of arranging dinner parties and musical evenings, while gossiping about the neighbours – and presiding over all of this is Emmeline Lucas, better known as Lucia (pronounced the Italian way, of course). Along with her husband Philip (‘Peppino’) and her loyal ‘gentleman-in-waiting’ Georgie Pillson, Lucia has put herself at the heart of Riseholme society and is the self-proclaimed queen – so imagine her frustration when her rival, Daisy Quantock, begins to pose a threat to her crown. When Mrs Quantock produces an Indian Guru and offers his services as yoga teacher to the villagers, the jealous Lucia manages to ‘steal’ him for herself, so when Daisy moves on to a new fad she vows not to make the same mistake again…

Lucia is such an unpleasant character! From her irritating habit of speaking baby talk with Georgie and her insistence on dropping Italian phrases into conversation, despite only knowing a few words of the language, to the way she pushes others aside to make herself the centre of attention, there is really not much to like about her at all. And yet that didn’t really matter; as this is a satire and Lucia, and the others, are clearly supposed to be comedy characters, the more unlikeable the better!

This is the first in Benson’s six-novel Mapp and Lucia series and also the first one I’ve read. They had never really appealed to me before, although I know a lot of people love them, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I don’t feel an immediate compulsion to pick up the next one, but I’m sure I will at some point and am looking forward to meeting Miss Mapp.

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Usually I’m able to post a list of other books I’ve reviewed on my blog from the relevant club year, but for 1920 I can find only one:

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

It’s a great book and one I would highly recommend.