An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

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

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

I am now halfway through my 20 Books of Summer list and obviously not going to finish all of the remaining books by the end of the month, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to read this one, The Sussex Downs Murder, as I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now and could never seem to find the right time to read it. It turns out that summer was the perfect time, as the story takes place in July…

The novel opens on a Saturday evening with John Rother saying goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and leaving their Sussex farm, Chalklands, to drive to Harlech in Wales for a holiday. He doesn’t get very far, however, and his car is found abandoned the next morning just a few miles away from the farm. John has disappeared, but there are bloodstains inside the car and signs of a violent struggle. Has he been killed? Kidnapped? Superintendent William Meredith is called in and when human bones are found in a delivery of lime from the Chalklands lime-kilns a few days later, it seems that he is dealing with a murder case.

In his careful, methodical way Meredith begins to investigate, examining every clue and interviewing every possible witness. He forms a theory almost immediately, but when a second crime occurs and proves him wrong, he is forced to think again, and slowly – too slowly for his Chief Constable who threatens to bring in Scotland Yard – starts to piece together what has happened.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore, is a popular author within the British Library Crime Classics series, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Originally published in 1936, it’s the second Superintendent Meredith novel and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more of them. I liked Meredith, although we don’t get to know very much about his background or personal life – apart from some great scenes with his son, Tony – and I appreciated the way his thoughts are shared with the reader, so that we can follow each step of his investigations and see in which direction the clues are leading him. I also liked the Sussex setting; it’s not an area that I know, but there’s a map at the beginning and all of the towns and villages, chalk hills and rings of trees – are real places and geographical features.

My only problem with this book was that the solution to the mystery was far too easy to guess; I had my suspicions from very early in the story and was proved right. I don’t usually manage to solve the crime before the detective does, so I wonder if other readers found this one particularly obvious too.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie – #1936Club

This is the second book I’ve read for the 1936 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) and an obvious one for me as I’m also taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year. The monthly prompt for Read Christie is ‘a story set before WWII’, which makes Murder in Mesopotamia, published in 1936, the perfect choice!

Murder in Mesopotamia is a Poirot mystery and one of several to feature a first person narrator – usually Captain Hastings, but in this case Nurse Amy Leatheran. At the beginning of the novel she agrees to travel to the site of an archaeological dig near Hassanieh in Iraq to nurse the wife of the expedition leader, Dr Leidner. Louise Leidner is being blamed by some of the other archaeologists for causing tension on this year’s dig, but when Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site what she finds is a nervous, frightened woman who claims to be receiving threatening letters from a former husband. A few days later, Louise is found dead in her bedroom, having been hit on the head by a blunt object. It seems impossible that a stranger could have entered the site without being seen, therefore the murderer must be someone on the dig…but who?

When I first began to read, I couldn’t help making comparisons with They Came to Baghdad, one of my favourite Christie novels, which features lots of colourful descriptions of Iraq. The sense of place in this one isn’t quite as strong – and in fact, we see very little of Iraq beyond the confines of the dig site – but there’s still plenty of atmosphere. The descriptions we do get of the dig and the various roles of the members of the expedition are fascinating and feel authentic, which is to be expected as Christie herself was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and often accompanied him on digs. Not only could she draw on her own personal knowledge and experience in the writing of this novel, she also apparently based some of the characters on people she knew.

Nurse Leatheran is a very opinionated narrator who doesn’t hold back on her views of ‘Foreigners’ (including Poirot), but apart from that I quite enjoyed her narration. We get to know the other participants in the dig through her eyes and, because she is an outsider, meeting all of these people for the first time, we can never be completely sure whether or not she is giving us an accurate impression of them. Poirot himself appears halfway through the novel, conveniently passing through Hassanieh after working on a case in Syria – and we are told that a week later, after solving this mystery, he will go on to investigate the Murder on the Orient Express.

As usual, I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself. I came up with a few theories, but none of them were correct, which isn’t surprising as the final solution is so far-fetched I don’t think I would ever have thought of it! The method by which the murder is carried out seems unlikely, if not impossible, but the motive relies on us accepting something which I found impossible to believe. Still, this was an entertaining read and another great 1936 book.

Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis – #1936Club

This week Karen and Simon are hosting another of their clubs where we all read and write about books published in the same year – and I think this particular year, 1936, is one of the best so far. I’ve already read a lot of great 1936 books and there are many more that I considered reading for the club.

Live Alone and Like It by Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis, is a self-help book for single women who, either intentionally or unintentionally, find themselves living alone. I’m not someone who normally reads self-help books, but I thought it might be fun to read one published in 1936 and, as I do live alone, to see if Hillis has any good advice for me!

As nice, perhaps, as any other way of living, and infinitely nicer than living with too many people (often meaning two or more others) or with the wrong single individual. You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly. Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

As you can probably tell from the quote above, Hillis has very little patience with women who indulge in self-pity and sit around complaining about their living arrangements. Her view is that single women can easily become a burden to other people and should avoid doing so at all costs: ‘Remember that nothing is so damaging to self-esteem as waiting for a telephone or door-bell that doesn’t ring.’ Instead, in her brisk, no-nonsense style she urges us to take control of our own lives and raise our self-esteem by giving ourselves little treats, cooking nice meals, wearing new clothes, and not telling ourselves that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’.

There are some amusing question and answer sections, with questions like ‘How late is it proper for a woman living alone to entertain a man friend, and how can she get him to go at the correct time?’ and each chapter ends with a selection of case studies, showing how some women have perfectly mastered the art of successfully living alone while others unfortunately haven’t. She devotes a whole chapter to the pleasures of sleeping in a single bed, pointing out that ‘most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar’ and another takes us step-by-step through the correct preparation, cooking and serving of meals for one person:

Very well, then, have your orange juice and black coffee and toast…Our plea is merely for plenty of orange juice, coffee and toast; really good orange juice, coffee and toast; and orange juice, coffee and toast attractively served.

There’s no doubt that Hillis’ target audience were women of a certain class; she seems to take it for granted that you will probably have a maid – and if you don’t, you’re very unfortunate as you’ll have to do everything yourself – and she provides lots of tips on hosting the perfect cocktail party or bridge night. There’s also an assumption that you will be living in a large city like New York with plenty of clubs, theatres and exhibitions to go to; women who live alone in a small town or in the countryside aren’t given as much attention, except in a few of the case studies. However, a lot of her advice is still relevant today and to everyone, such as how to meet people and make new friends. I will leave you with a quote that I think applies to all of us live-aloners, whatever our personal circumstances:

Living alone, you can – within your own walls – do as you like. The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.

Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon – #ReadIndies

I had so many reading plans for February, yet the month is slipping away and I’ve hardly read any of the books I’d hoped to read. However, I really wanted to read something for the Read Indies Month hosted by Karen and Lizzy and I’m pleased that I’ve managed to fit in Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon, published by Dean Street Press.

This wonderful Golden Age crime novel from 1936 was written by John Haslette Vahey; Henrietta Clandon was one of his many pseudonyms – he seems to have been very prolific and used different names for his work with different publishers or in different genres. I found this one so much fun to read, I will certainly be reading more of his books! It reminded me very strongly of The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, but also a little bit of Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson and Queen Lucia by EF Benson.

Good by Stealth is what is known as an ‘inverted mystery’. We know from the beginning that our narrator, Miss Edna Alice, has been found guilty of sending anonymous letters – letters which have caused suicides, broken engagements and ruined relationships – but what we don’t know is why. In Miss Alice’s own words, we watch the sequence of events unfold which lead to the writing of the letters and we hear her reasons for doing so. There’s no real suspense because we know that eventually she will be caught, tried and sent to prison, but by the end of the book we have enough information to decide for ourselves whether there is any justification for Miss Alice’s actions.

Miss Alice begins her story by describing her arrival in the small English village of Lush Mellish, where she settles into her new cottage with her dog and sets out to make friends with the other residents, but succeeds only in turning them all against her. Her attempts to join the art circle, the literary society and the tennis club all end in disaster – and of course, it is never Miss Alice’s fault.

I paid my subscription and joined the tennis club. It was sometime later that I heard how my comments – which were quite harmlessly witty – had been repeated and exaggerated, causing great offence. It was no good trying to prove that, and in the end I decided that the truth still remains the truth, even if embroidered. But people hate to recognise themselves in what they take to be a faulty mirror.

Although Miss Alice is undoubtedly an unpleasant, self-righteous woman, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her when, first of all, not just one but several of her pet dogs die in ways which seem not to have been accidental, and then the other inhabitants of Lush Mellish appear to engage in a series of campaigns designed to humiliate her and drive her out of the village. The cruelty of these people, particularly the elderly woman who lives next door, is so excessive and spiteful that you can’t help but feel sorry for our poor narrator, despite her own nastiness.

But these things did me no harm, the more so as cook knew a great deal about the slanderers and backbiters, and as good as told me that some of them were determined to drive me out of the town. Can you imagine people so lost to any sense of decency? In the end they had their wicked will, and so contrived it that I appeared technically to be at fault. But was it my fault if I had not their cunning and lack of principle?

In Miss Alice’s version of events, she has the best of motives for beginning to send anonymous letters to the people of Lush Mellish containing helpful pieces of advice aimed at improving their morals and correcting their behaviour. But of course the recipients of the letters don’t see things that way and as we are only given one side of the story we have to make up our own minds as to whether Miss Alice was really as well-meaning as she claims to have been.

The book is hugely entertaining and often very funny (I particularly loved Miss Alice’s descriptions of the ‘wicked old woman’ next door) and although some parts of the story don’t seem at first to have much to do with the overall plot, everything falls into place by the end and the significance of even the smallest detail becomes clear. This is not a conventional crime novel or mystery in any way, but there is still an element of detection towards the end, when the police begin to investigate Miss Alice’s alleged crimes. Again, because we are seeing things from the suspect’s point of view rather than the detective’s, my sympathies were with Miss Alice and even though I knew from the opening chapter what the outcome would be, I was still hoping she wouldn’t be caught!

If anyone has read any of Henrietta Clandon’s other books – or anything published under one of Vahey’s other names – please let me know which one I should try next!

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

This is the latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series, making long-forgotten crime novels by female authors available again to modern readers. I think it’s probably my favourite so far. Originally published in 1938, it’s the first of several books written by American author Helen McCloy which feature the psychiatrist Dr Basil Willing.

The novel begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman, buried under a heap of snow in a New York street. Bizarrely, the cause of death appears to be heatstroke and the girl’s face is stained bright yellow. The police think they have identified her as Kitty Jocelyn, a beautiful debutante who has become famous as the face of an advertising campaign, but things take an even more confusing turn when they speak to her cousin, Ann Claude, who closely resembles the dead girl and who claims that she had been persuaded to impersonate Kitty at her recent coming out party.

Inspector Foyle begins to investigate this intriguing mystery, assisted by Basil Willing, an expert in Freudian psychoanalysis who provides a very different and, for the time, probably quite modern approach to crime-solving. While Foyle looks for tangible evidence and clues that will point to the culprit, Willing is more interested in the ‘blunders’ people make: a slip of the tongue, a lost item, a forgotten name. “Every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints,” he says, “And he can’t wear gloves to hide them.” I found Willing’s methods of solving the mystery fascinating, whether it was suggesting psychological reasons for the blunders, conducting word association tests or using his knowledge of the human mind to find out the motivation behind the crime.

Apart from Basil Willing, whom I liked and will look forward to meeting again, the other characters in the book are well drawn and believable too, which is important as the psychological angle of the story wouldn’t have worked if the characters had been nothing more than stereotypes. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself; although I suspected the right person, their motive came as a complete surprise to me, so I was content to let Willing do the investigating and explain the solution to me at the end. There are other aspects of the novel which I found nearly as interesting as the mystery, though, such as the ethics of advertising, attitudes towards money in 1930s society and the responsibilities of being a public figure. I thoroughly enjoyed Dance of Death and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more by Helen McCloy.

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

The Man from London by Georges Simenon – #NovNov

I’ve been struggling to concentrate on longer novels for most of the year, despite having more time than ever before to read them! This month’s Novellas in November (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, ) seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to get through some of the shorter books on my TBR, beginning with this one – a French classic from 1934 reissued today by Penguin Classics.

The Man from London is my first Georges Simenon book (I haven’t read any of the Maigret novels, though I feel that I should have done by now), so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. I was pleased to find that it was suspenseful, atmospheric and, in this translation by Howard Curtis, very readable.

The story begins on a cold, foggy night in Dieppe, where railway signalman Louis Maloin is sitting alone in his watchtower, looking down on the docks at the ferry just arriving from England. It’s a sight Maloin observes every day, but tonight something is different: he watches one of the newly arrived passengers fight with another man and knock him into the water, along with the suitcase he is holding. Aware that he appears to be the only person who has seen this happen, Maloin retrieves the case from the water when nobody is around and takes it home with him. When he discovers what the case contains, the decision he makes could have consequences that will change his life forever.

Although there is an element of mystery to the book, with questions over the identities of the two men and where the contents of the case came from, this is really more of a psychological thriller than a crime novel. The fight Maloin witnesses and his reaction to it provides a starting point for an exploration of the state of Maloin’s mind as the process he has set in motion spirals out of control. He experiences every conceivable emotion over the course of the story, ranging from guilt at not telling the police what he has seen and allowing a murderer to walk free, excitement at gaining possession of the case for himself, and terror, knowing that someone could discover what he has done at any minute.

The atmosphere Simenon creates is wonderful, with the tension building and building as Maloin tries to go about his normal life, while being confronted at every turn by the face of the man he has come to think of as ‘the man from London’. The wet, foggy December weather adds to the overall mood, as do the descriptions of the places and people Maloin encounters as he moves around Dieppe trying to avoid the murderer and the police.

The short length of the book meant it held my interest from beginning to end and although I think the potential was here for a longer and more complex novel, I still found it quite satisfying. I’m glad my first experience of Georges Simenon’s work was a good one and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his books now.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley