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

The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull – #RIPXV

I’ve enjoyed several of Richard Hull’s novels over the last few years – particularly The Murder of My Aunt and Left-Handed Death – and with Halloween quickly approaching, The Ghost It Was (first published in 1936) sounded like a good one to read next.

The novel begins with aspiring journalist Gregory Spring-Benson trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter. Having failed to impress the editor, Gregory is given new hope when he comes across a badly written article about James Warrenton’s purchase of the supposedly haunted Amberhurst Place. James Warrenton happens to be his uncle – his very rich uncle – and perhaps if Gregory goes to visit him in his new home he will be able to gather material for a much more interesting article that will help to launch his career in journalism. If he can also persuade Uncle James to leave him as much money as possible in his will, even better!

On his arrival, however, Gregory finds that he is not the only one hoping to secure his inheritance; three other nephews and a niece have also descended upon the house in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their uncle. But while the cousins are busy plotting and scheming against each other, the ghost of Amberhurst Place makes an appearance at the top of a tower. Deaths soon follow, but is the ghost responsible or is there a human culprit?

Although all of the books I’ve read by Richard Hull so far have been very different, unlikeable characters seem to be the one thing they have in common! This worked very well in The Murder of My Aunt, where the characters were so horrible they were funny, but in this book they are just thoroughly unpleasant and not much fun to spend time with at all. I could easily have believed that almost any of them was the murderer and didn’t really care which of them was. It didn’t help that after a strong opening, introducing us to Gregory Spring-Benson and describing his ordeals at the newspaper office, the narrative then jumps around between the other cousins, the butler, a clergyman and some Scotland Yard investigators. We barely see Gregory after this and I felt that the novel lost focus through trying to involve too many different characters at once.

The ghost story aspect of the novel is well done – not at all scary, but it adds some atmosphere and makes it more difficult to work out exactly how the murders are being carried out. Despite the unpleasant characters and the lack of focus I’ve mentioned, it’s quite an enjoyable mystery to try to solve and the denouement, when it comes, is unusual and unexpected. Instead of tying everything up for the reader, Hull leaves us to make up our own minds and to decide whether we’ve correctly interpreted what we have been told. Not a favourite Hull novel, then, but still worth reading and I will continue to explore his other books.

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

This is my second book read for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

I was re-watching one of my favourite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, a few weeks ago and it occurred to me that I should probably try reading the book on which it was based – The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, published in 1936. Luckily, I was able to find a Project Gutenberg version available to download, so I could start it immediately while I was in the mood. Now that I’ve read it, I think it’s one of the few cases where, for me, the film is better than the book! I did enjoy reading it, but I was surprised by how different it was and by how many of the elements I love from The Lady Vanishes are not part of the novel.

The Wheel Spins begins with Iris Carr, a young Englishwoman, staying at a small hotel in an unspecified country somewhere in Europe. Her friends have already left but Iris has decided to stay on alone at the hotel for a few more days. On the day she is due to catch the train home, she briefly loses consciousness at the station and assumes she must be suffering from sunstroke. Managing to board the crowded train just in time, Iris finds herself sharing a carriage with several other people, including Miss Froy, an English governess who is also on her way home. Iris accompanies Miss Froy to tea in the dining carriage where she listens to her new friend talk about her recent teaching jobs. After returning to their seats, Iris falls asleep – and awakens to find Miss Froy gone. When the rest of the passengers all deny that Miss Froy ever existed, Iris begins to panic: has the sunstroke affected her more than she’d realised or is something more sinister taking place?

After a slow start in which the author takes her time introducing us to Iris and the other guests at the hotel, all of whom seem to end up on the same train home, things soon pick up with the disappearance of Miss Froy and the efforts Iris makes to try to find out what has happened to her. There are only really two possible scenarios: either Iris has imagined things or everybody on the train is lying – and if they are lying, why? This is where the significance of those early chapters becomes clear as Iris is not the most pleasant of people and makes herself so unpopular with her fellow travellers that it’s easy to see why they don’t feel like helping her. Some of them also have other motives for not wanting to get involved and although I thought this was handled better in the film, the book does still give us a sense of how unsettling all of this is for Iris and how she begins to doubt her own sanity.

As I’ve said, there are so many things I love in the film which don’t appear in the novel: the significance of music to the plot; Charters and Caldicott, the two cricket-obsessed Englishmen determined to get home in time to see the Test Match; the relationship between Iris and the musicologist Gilbert; and the performances of Margaret Lockwood (a much more likable Iris than the one in the book), Michael Redgrave and May Whitty in the leading roles. On the other hand, there are also some interesting aspects of the novel that Hitchcock didn’t include – for example, some occasional glimpses of Miss Froy’s elderly parents at home in England looking forward to their daughter’s return.

Although I think I might have felt more enthusiastic about the book if I had read it first, rather than the other way around, I still enjoyed it and am curious about Ethel Lina White’s other books now.

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.

***

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.