The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies

So far, the novels of Dinah Jefferies have taken me to India, Malaya, Ceylon and French Indochina. Now, with The Missing Sister, I have had the opportunity to visit Burma. Known as Myanmar today, the novel is set in 1936 when Burma is still a British colony – although unrest is growing and there are signs that independence might not be far away. It is to Burma that Belle Hatton has come in search of answers to a mystery that has haunted her family for more than twenty years.

Taking a job as a singer in a luxury hotel in the capital city of Rangoon, Belle uses her spare time to hunt for clues that may explain the disappearance of her parents’ baby daughter, Elvira, in January 1911. Belle herself has grown up in England, unaware that her elder sister ever existed, but now that both of her parents are dead, she has discovered a newspaper clipping describing the day Elvira, only three weeks old, vanished from the Hattons’ garden in Rangoon. Although it was all so long ago, Belle is determined to find out what really happened and whether Elvira could possibly still be alive.

As with all of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, the location is beautifully described and although I’ve never been to Burma/Myanmar it was easy to picture the lively, bustling streets of Rangoon (now Yangon), the opulent temples and pagodas, and the scenery Belle sees when, later in the book, she travels upriver to Mandalay. Another common feature of Jefferies’ books tends to be a portrayal of different cultures existing, often uneasily, side by side in the final years of the British Empire (or in the case of The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, the French Empire). This book contains a vivid description of a violent riot between the Burmese and the Burmese Indians, but otherwise I was a bit disappointed that Belle has little involvement with the local people and their struggles, sticking mainly to the British community and focusing on her search for Elvira.

The mystery element of the novel is slightly predictable and although I didn’t guess exactly what had happened to Belle’s sister, I wasn’t at all surprised by the ending of the book. Along the way, Belle is offered help from two very different men – Edward, a British government official, and Oliver, an American journalist – but when she starts to receive anonymous warnings, she is unsure which, if either of them, she can trust. This time, I did guess correctly – but I did have a few doubts as it wasn’t completely obvious.

There was one other aspect of the book that interested me: a storyline set several years earlier and following the story of Belle’s mother, Diana, and how she copes with the tragic disappearance of Elvira. When suspicion falls on Diana herself, she and her husband leave Burma and return to England where, sadly, their marriage starts to break down under the stress of their ordeal. Diana doesn’t receive the support she deserves and decisions are made that will affect not only her own future but also her youngest daughter Belle’s. Diana’s story is told in the form of short chapters interspersed with Belle’s, which means we don’t spend a lot of time with her, but the little glimpses we are given of her life and the way she is treated by her husband are very sad.

This isn’t one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m looking forward to her next one The Tuscan Contessa, which is out later this year and will be the first she has written not to be set in Asia.

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Violet Speedwell is a ‘surplus woman’ – a woman whose fiancé was killed in the First World War and who, like more than a million other British women, is now unlikely to find a husband because there are simply no longer enough men to go around. Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, A Single Thread, tells Violet’s story beginning in 1932 when Violet, who has stayed at home with her mother until the age of thirty-eight, decides that it’s finally time to move out and build a life of her own.

Moving from Southampton to nearby Winchester, Violet is determined to be financially independent but it’s not easy on the low wages she earns as a typist in the office of a small insurance company. By the time she’s paid to rent a room in a house shared with two other women she finds that she’s struggling to buy a hot meal or put coal on the fire. This is all very depressing at first, but a visit to Winchester Cathedral changes everything. Here she meets a group of women who call themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers and who devote their spare time to embroidering cushions and kneelers for the cathedral seats and benches. Violet decides to attend one of their weekly meetings and soon she is learning new skills and making new friends.

One of these friends is Gilda Hill, another single woman, who introduces her to Arthur, an older man who volunteers with a group of bell-ringers at the cathedral. Violet likes Arthur immediately but she is aware that he has a wife and daughter, so anything more than friendship must be out of the question. Still, with the help of Gilda, Arthur and others, Violet begins to find her place in her new community – until events back in Southampton force her to make an important decision.

This is a quiet, gentle book – not one with a dramatic, exciting plot – but I found it completely absorbing. I liked Violet and sympathised as she tried to navigate a society designed for men and married women; as a single woman she faced a large number of challenges and I particularly admired the way she dealt with her male employer who had never even considered the pay and working conditions of his female workers. Some of the other women amongst the Winchester Broderers had interesting stories of their own too, especially Gilda and Dorothy, and I was intrigued to learn that the woman leading the embroidery project, Louisa Pesel, was a real person.

I have to admit, the detailed descriptions of different types of embroidery stitches and patterns didn’t interest me all that much, but the enthusiasm of Violet and the other Broderers and the pride they took in their work came across strongly. Similarly, I didn’t share the passion of Arthur and his friends for bell-ringing, but I did enjoy hearing them explain what was involved and why they found it so rewarding.

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way the book ended as I found it too predictable and would have preferred something more unconventional for Violet, but I still thought it was an enjoyable and insightful read, highlighting a section of 1930s society we don’t hear enough about.

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

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

First of all, this is a quick note to say that I am moving house this week so won’t have much time for blogging for a while – there are just so many other things that need to be done! I have prepared and scheduled some posts in advance, so you probably won’t notice any difference, but I might be slow to respond to comments or to catch up with commenting on your blogs. I’m hoping to get settled in quickly so that things can get back to normal, but meanwhile here is my review of one of last month’s reads, The Night Tiger.

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The Night Tiger was a surprise. I had been drawn to it mainly by the colourful cover and the fact that it was set in Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a country I know very little about, but I didn’t really expect to like it very much. I hadn’t read Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, because the subject didn’t appeal to me, and it sounded as though this book, like that one, would have a very strong magical realism element – and I’m not much of a fan of magical realism. Well, I was wrong about that; although there are times when the story does veer towards the fantastical, most of it is concerned with simply describing the folklore and superstitions of the Chinese people of Malaya and asking us to accept that some of these things may actually be real.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told from two different perspectives. First there’s Ren, an eleven year-old houseboy whose master, Dr MacFarlane, has recently died. While on his deathbed, the doctor asked Ren to carry out a very special task for him: to find his severed finger and bury it in his grave beside his dead body. This must be done within forty-nine days, otherwise Dr MacFarlane’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever. In need of new employment, Ren enters the service of another doctor, William Acton, then begins his quest to locate the missing finger.

Our other main character is Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who has been secretly working in a dance hall in Ipoh to earn the money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. While dancing with a salesman one night, she sees a little glass bottle fall from his pocket and, catching it before it hits the ground, she finds that it contains a shrivelled finger. This gruesome discovery leads Ji Lin to cross paths with Ren and when they each begin to have recurring dreams involving a train journey, it seems that their lives are becoming intertwined in other ways as well.

I enjoyed The Night Tiger much more than I thought I would. The setting is fascinating, of course; I have read two other books set in Malaya (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and The Separation by Dinah Jefferies) but they are very different types of books and don’t explore Chinese and Malaysian myths and legends the way this one does. The folklore surrounding the legend of the weretiger was particularly intriguing; there are hints that one could be responsible for the unexplained deaths that have been occurring around the town, and we can either believe that this is true or we can just believe that the characters in the story believe it is true, if that makes sense!

Both main viewpoint characters are easy to like; I felt closer to Ji Lin, because her story is told in the first person whereas Ren’s is told in the third, but I did love Ren too. He often seems very mature for his age – probably because he has been forced to grow up quickly due to his personal circumstances – but at other times he behaves more like the child he still is.

I’m still not sure whether I want to read The Ghost Bride, but I will look out for Yangsze Choo’s next book and see if it appeals.

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

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.

Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son

A while ago I read an early novel by Margery Allingham published under the pseudonym Maxwell March. It was called The Man of Dangerous Secrets and, although it was undoubtedly silly and over the top, I enjoyed it so much I knew I would be reading her other two Maxwell March books as soon as the time was right. Well, the time was right this month and I have now read both Rogues’ Holiday (1935) and The Devil and Her Son (1936).

Rogues’ Holiday begins with the death of a young man found dead in a locked room at his London club. Suicide is assumed, but Inspector David Blest of Scotland Yard is not convinced. Having learned that the dead man had been seen arguing with Sir Leo Thyn, an older and highly respected member of the club, shortly before his death, David wonders whether there is a connection. He shares his suspicions with his superior officer, who tells him to keep his opinions to himself and sends him off on his scheduled two-week holiday as planned.

But David has no intention of taking a holiday. Instead, he heads for the Arcadian Hotel in the seaside resort of Westbourne – the same hotel where Sir Leo Thyn is now staying with a friend, a man whom David immediately recognises as a notorious criminal known as The Major. Another guest has also just arrived at the hotel: this is Judy Wellington, a young heiress who claims to be a permanent invalid, but David suspects that she is not in such poor health as she pretends. When another murder takes place, he discovers that he has walked into a whole nest of rogues – but how is Judy mixed up in it all and could she be in danger?

As I’d already read The Man of Dangerous Secrets, I had a good idea of what to expect from this book. I knew it would be more thriller than detective novel, I knew there would be wicked villains, far-fetched plot twists, last-minute escapes and coincidences galore, and I knew there would be a beautiful girl with whom our hero would fall in love at first sight. And yes, Rogues’ Holiday has all of those things. You probably wouldn’t describe it as a fantastic piece of literature and I’m sure it doesn’t represent Margery Allingham at her very best, but accept it for what it is and it’s a lot of fun to read.

I thought The Devil and Her Son (originally published as The Shadow in the House) would be similar and in some ways it is. The ridiculous plot, the coincidences, the villains and the unbelievable plot twists are all here again – but this is a much darker novel than the other two and, I thought, a better written one.

The novel opens with Mary Coleridge feeling very sorry for herself. She has lost her job as a governess, her love interest has left town with no explanation after their first date, and she has no family or friends to turn to. So, when Marie-Elizabeth Mason, another lodger in the boarding house where Mary lives, makes an outlandish suggestion, Mary feels she has nothing to lose. Miss Mason has recently arrived in England from Australia and an elderly aunt whom she has never seen is expecting her to go and visit. Preferring to stay in London to pursue an acting career, Miss Mason’s idea is that she and Mary switch identities and Mary goes to stay with the aunt instead.

This is clearly a ludicrous plan, but somehow it works (and Mary’s lack of Australian accent is not even remarked on). However, she gets more than she’d bargained for when Aunt Eva persuades her to marry her dying son to prevent the house from being lost to the family. Feeling sorry for the old woman, Mary agrees, despite her guilt at marrying under a false name and deceiving everyone. But soon she discovers that she herself is the victim of an even bigger deception and that Eva and her family are not what they appear to be. Can Mary escape from the terrifying situation in which she has placed herself?

Once you’ve accepted the premise of the story, this is a very enjoyable novel. Eva de Liane is a truly chilling and sinister woman and I was genuinely afraid for poor Mary – although I also wanted to scream at Mary for walking blindly into danger over and over again! This is a novel where nobody at all can be trusted, where even a stranger in the street or on a train could be somehow wrapped up in the de Lianes’ nefarious schemes. There’s also a romance which wasn’t quite as obvious as the one in Rogues’ Holiday and rather than being love at first sight, is much more satisfying because it takes longer to develop.

Maxwell March has been a great discovery for me and I’m sorry Margery Allingham only wrote three books under that name!

Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies

Whenever I want a book to transport me to another country and another time, I need look no further than Dinah Jefferies. So far her novels have taken me to Ceylon, Malaya and French Indochina; this one, Before the Rains, is set in Rajputana, India, in the 1930s.

Our heroine, Eliza Fraser, has a passion for photography and hopes to build a career for herself as a photojournalist. When an old family friend and British politician, Clifford Salter, arranges for her to spend a year photographing the royal family of one of India’s princely states, she is both delighted and nervous. India is where she grew up and she still feels a connection to the land and the people, but it is also where, at the age of ten, she witnessed the death of her father in Delhi.

Arriving at the palace where she will live for the next twelve months, Eliza finds that not everyone is happy to have an outsider interfering in their affairs, especially when they discover that she is a widow. Other people, though, are much more welcoming – including Jayant Singh, the younger brother of Prince Anish. When Jay offers to escort Eliza around the countryside in search of subjects for her photographs, she is distressed by the poverty she sees and urges Jay to do something to help his people. In return, Jay helps her to understand the effect British rule has had on India. As they discuss these and other issues and get to know each other better, a friendship forms between them which quickly becomes something more…but Eliza knows that there can only be any future for them if Jay is prepared to defy both his family and the expectations of society.

Like all of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, this one features some lovely descriptive writing, bringing to life the sounds, colours, tastes and smells of India. But along with the beautiful descriptions, there are some brutal, horrifying ones, such as an account of a widow throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, followed by a discussion of the custom of sati, as well as the fates of unwanted baby girls and of women suspected of witchcraft. For all Eliza had spent her childhood in India, she had been insulated within the British community and it’s only now that she is going out on her excursions with Jay that she feels she is truly starting to understand the country, its history and its people.

Although I loved the setting, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed some of Jefferies’ others, which is mainly due to the fact that I found it predictable and too reliant on coincidences – there were at least two plot twists towards the end that I found completely unconvincing. I also struggled to believe in Eliza’s romance with Jay; I liked both characters, but I thought it seemed too convenient that on arriving at the palace Eliza would immediately catch the eye of a prince. Maybe I should have just been less cynical and more prepared to suspend disbelief.

This is probably my least favourite of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, but I’m still looking forward to reading her new one, The Missing Sister, which will be set in 1930s Burma.

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor is one of my favourite authors of historical mysteries and after reading his latest one, The Fire Court, earlier this year, I remembered that I still had Bleeding Heart Square to read.

The novel opens in London in 1934 with Lydia Langstone, stepdaughter of the wealthy Lord Cassington, walking out on her violent and brutal husband. Armed with her copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lydia heads straight for Bleeding Heart Square, home to her father, Captain Ingleby-Lewis. The Captain isn’t entirely respectable and neither is the address, but Lydia doesn’t care – she just needs somewhere to stay until she can build a new, independent life for herself.

Another new resident of Bleeding Heart Square is Rory Wentwood, a young man who has recently returned from India to find that his girlfriend, Fenella, is no longer interested in marrying him. Rory still cares about Fenella, though, and when he hears about the disappearance of her aunt, Philippa Penhow, several years earlier, he decides to uncover the truth. The house at Bleeding Heart Square had belonged to Miss Penhow until she signed it over to the current owner, Joseph Serridge, before supposedly going to live in America. Rory has his doubts and has taken a room in the house so that he can investigate further.

When a number of foul-smelling parcels addressed to Mr Serridge begin to arrive at Bleeding Heart Square, the residents are both disgusted and intrigued. The packages contain rotten hearts neatly wrapped in brown paper and are obviously intended as a message to Mr Serridge – but who is sending them and why? What really happened to Philippa Penhow? And why is a policeman watching the house? Lydia teams up with Rory to try to find the answers, while doing her best to avoid her abusive husband.

Bleeding Heart Square is a mystery novel, but it is also a fascinating portrayal of life in 1930s London, with a particular focus on the rise of the fascism movement in Britain. One of the most memorable scenes in the book involves a meeting of the British Union of Fascists which descends into chaos when a few brave voices dare to question the party’s policies and are forcibly removed by Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted supporters. I found this aspect of the book interesting because of course with World War II on the horizon, fascism would soon become forever associated with Hitler and Mussolini and not something decent people would want to be part of – but here we see respectable people taking Mosley’s views seriously and considering giving him their support. It’s frightening to think of how different things could have been, and also still frighteningly relevant today.

Despite the 1930s setting, however, I thought the plot and the characters seemed much more suited to the Victorian period – there was a definite Dickens influence and in fact Bleeding Heart Yard appears in Little Dorrit. If you removed the fascism storyline, the rest of the novel could easily have been set in the 19th century; I was taken by surprise every time somebody got into a car as I felt it should have been a horse and carriage!

I liked both Lydia and Rory and found their personal stories so interesting that the central mystery felt almost secondary – although I was intrigued from the start by the brief diary entries and the comments by an unknown narrator that open every chapter. What will we learn from the diary and who is the narrator talking to? The ending of the book, in which the truth is revealed, was unexpected, but maybe there were clues from the beginning if I had been paying more attention!

Bleeding Heart Square isn’t my favourite of Andrew Taylor’s books – that would be The American Boy – but I did enjoy it and now that I’ve read all of his historical mysteries I’m wondering which of his other books I might like. Any recommendations are welcome!

This book counts towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).
I am also counting it towards the What’s In a Name? challenge – a book with a shape in the title.