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.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins: A book for the Persephone Readathon

Jessie at Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons this week and as I am also taking part in this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, I decided to read a book that would count towards both. Harriet, first published in 1934, is based on a real life crime which took place in 1877 and is a much darker story than you would usually find between the dove-grey covers of a Persephone book.

Harriet Woodhouse, the thirty-three-year-old title character, is referred to in the novel as ‘a natural’ – someone whom, today, we would probably describe as having learning difficulties. Her use of language – both written and spoken – is sometimes not quite right, she can appear to be insensitive and she is often slow to understand what people really mean. Mrs Ogilvy, her mother, is very loving and protective towards her daughter and although Harriet still lives at home, she encourages her to be as independent as possible and to visit family and friends now and then. It is while visiting her cousins, the Hoppners, that Harriet is introduced to Lewis Oman. Lewis is the brother of Elizabeth Hoppner’s husband, Patrick, and it is through this family connection that Lewis has heard that Harriet is in possession of a small fortune and due to inherit more on the death of an aunt.

When Lewis asks Harriet to marry him, his motives are very obvious to the reader: he is only interested in her money and feels nothing for Harriet herself. Mrs Ogilvy is horrified, but as her daughter is an adult she finds that there is nothing she can do to prevent the marriage, especially as Harriet thinks Lewis is charming and wonderful and believes everything he tells her. The wedding goes ahead and, having achieved his goal, Lewis quickly tires of his new wife, sending her to live in the country with Elizabeth and Patrick.

From this point, the story becomes very disturbing with Harriet completely isolated and cut off from the people who love her and care about her. Her treatment at the hands of Lewis and Patrick, and Elizabeth and her younger sister Alice, is quite painful to read about, particularly as their acts of cruelty are rarely described explicitly – instead, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the hints we are given. It is not quite clear whether the Omans and Hoppners had set out to treat Harriet so horribly or whether they just see her as an inconvenience, not worth paying any attention to, and so the neglect happens almost by accident. Either way, it’s cruel and inhumane and the complete lack of compassion displayed by these four people is shocking.

Something that struck me while I was reading was that we never really get into Harriet’s head and never know what she is thinking or feeling. We see her only through the eyes of other people, as a nuisance to be ignored and kept out of the way, or in the case of Mrs Ogilvy, a beloved and vulnerable daughter whom she is powerless to help. The one person who could possibly have done something to help is Clara, the young maid who works for Elizabeth and Patrick – she knows something is not right, she knows Harriet is in danger, and yet still she does nothing. I found this very frustrating and I had to keep reminding myself that Clara was only a teenager, probably afraid of losing her job, and that Elizabeth Jenkins was constrained by the historical facts of the case – if somebody had intervened when I wanted them to, it could have changed the whole outcome of the story.

It was interesting after finishing the book to look up the details of the real Harriet and what happened to her – it seems that Elizabeth Jenkins has kept the same first names of the characters, but changed the surnames, while most of the other basic facts are correct. It doesn’t feel right to say that I enjoyed this book, but I did find it a fascinating and gripping read, as well as a very sad and harrowing one. Knowing that it is based on a true story makes it even more poignant.

This is my third book read for the R.I.P. XIII Challenge (category: suspense/thriller)

Are you taking part in the Persephone Readathon? What have you been reading?

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

Today would have been E M Delafield’s birthday – and she is the next author to be featured in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I wasn’t planning to join in with this one but, during last weekend’s Mini Persephone Readathon, having finished Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, I wanted something else to read and remembered that Diary of a Provincial Lady is also published by Persephone. My copy is not the dove-grey Persephone edition, but I was still pleased to have found a book that would count for both the Readathon and today’s celebrations!

Diary of a Provincial Lady, first published in 1930, is exactly what you would expect from the title: a novel written in the form of the diary of a ‘Provincial Lady’. The Lady, whose name we never learn, lives with her husband Robert in a village in the south of England. Their young son, Robin, is away at school much of the time, but there is also a daughter, Vicky, who is educated at home by Mademoiselle, her French governess. Several more servants, including a temperamental cook and a series of dissatisfied parlourmaids, complete the household.

The Provincial Lady’s days are always busy and varied. As well as being responsible for managing the servants, there are tea parties and garden fetes to attend, dinners to host and visitors to entertain – including the formidable and snobbish Lady Boxe, and Our Vicar’s Wife who, once she arrives, often forgets to leave again! The Provincial Lady records all of these things in her diary over a period of about a year, writing in short, concise sentences interspersed with notes, queries and memos to herself.

I have been putting off reading Diary of a Provincial Lady for a long time, because I wasn’t convinced that it sounded like my sort of book, but I was actually very pleasantly surprised. One of the things that surprised me was how often I found I was able to relate to the Provincial Lady and her problems. In fact, I think a lot of the situations she describes are things that most of us would probably identify with…saying something stupid and then wondering why on earth we said it; pretending we understand what somebody is talking about and then being caught out later in the conversation; agreeing to do something and immediately wishing we hadn’t!

I couldn’t relate to everything, of course. The Lady’s lifestyle is entirely different from my own – I don’t have servants to worry about, for example, and if I found myself in financial trouble my solution wouldn’t be to buy myself some expensive new dresses then go off to the South of France for a holiday. I can appreciate, though, that she belonged to a certain time and a certain class and that her position in society meant that she was expected to behave in a particular way.

I was also surprised by how funny the book was! A sense of humour is often a personal, individual thing and sometimes when someone else says that a book is hilarious I’m disappointed when I don’t find it very funny at all (and I’m sure this probably happens the other way around too). But the Provincial Lady’s observations are so witty and the things that happen to her are so amusing I couldn’t help but laugh.

I am aware that there are more books in the Provincial Lady series. A question to those who have read them – are they as good as this one or is there another E M Delafield book you think I should read instead?