In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.

It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.

Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.

The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.

A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.

I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the book that was chosen for me to read in the recent Classics Club Spin – a result I was very pleased with, having loved two other novels by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man and Ride the Pink Horse (two of my books of the year in 2020 and 2021 respectively).

Originally published in 1947, In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles just after World War II. Dix Steele, who had served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, is staying in an apartment belonging to an old acquaintance, Mel Terriss, who has gone to Rio for a while. Like many young men who have returned from the war, Dix has been left damaged by his experiences and is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to finish writing his new crime novel. At least, that’s what he tells people. It is quickly made obvious to the reader that the writing is a cover for something else and that Dix is actually spending his time doing something very different.

Deciding to contact a wartime friend, Brub Nicolai, who also lives in LA, Dix is surprised to learn that Brub is now working as a police detective. Brub is delighted to renew their friendship, introducing Dix to his wife, Sylvia, and telling him about the case he is investigating – a series of stranglings that have been taking place across the city. Dix is envious of Brub’s close relationship with Sylvia, which serves as a constant reminder of his own sense of loneliness and isolation. When he meets Laurel Gray, a beautiful young actress who lives in his apartment building, it seems that he has a chance to form a new relationship of his own…if Laurel can avoid becoming the strangler’s next victim.

I had high hopes for this novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’ve actually found it quite a difficult book to write about because I’m not sure what would be considered a spoiler and what wouldn’t. Having said that, there’s not really a lot of mystery involved; we know from very early in the book who the murderer is – the suspense is in waiting to find out how, if and when they will get caught. However, there are still a few surprises and some revelations that don’t come until later in the story. All three of the books I’ve read by Hughes have been so much than just straightforward crime novels; she takes us right inside the minds of her characters and although they may be damaged, unhappy and not the most pleasant of people, she makes them feel believable and real, if not exactly sympathetic!

This book is wonderfully atmospheric – dark and tense and with the reader, like Dix, wondering who can be trusted and who knows more than they’re admitting to. It’s another great read and I’ll look forward to reading more by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This is book 28/50 read from my second Classics Club list

Who’s Calling? by Helen McCloy

This is the fourth novel in American mystery writer Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing series. I have read and enjoyed all of the previous three – Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight and The Deadly Truth – but it’s not necessary to read them in order as each mystery stands alone.

Who’s Calling? was first published in 1942 and begins with a young doctor, Archie Cranford, becoming engaged to Frieda Frey, a glamorous nightclub singer. Although he knows his mother won’t be happy to hear the news, Archie arranges to bring Frieda home to Willow Spring, near Washington, to meet his family and friends. Just before Frieda sets off from New York, she receives an anonymous phone call warning her not to go to Willow Spring. Deciding to ignore this threat, she goes ahead with the visit only to find herself the victim of more sinister calls, as well as other strange phenomena. Could this be the work of a poltergeist or is there a more rational reason for what is going on?

At a dinner party held by the Cranfords’ friends, Senator Mark Lindsay and his wife Julia, a murder takes place which may or may not be connected with Frieda’s ghostly experiences. It’s time to call in psychiatric consultant Dr Basil Willing in the hope that he can solve the crime and identify the murderer.

This is another entertaining Basil Willing mystery – although Willing himself doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the book. The first half is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the characters, the most memorable being the Cranfords’ cousin, Chalkeley Winchester, an annoying, self-absorbed man described by the others as a ‘spoiled child grown up’ and a ‘male old maid’. I also found the relationship between the Lindsays interesting, as we soon discover that Senator Lindsay is bored and disillusioned with his work and that it’s actually his wife Julia who is the driving force behind his political career.

McCloy begins each of her books with a list of ‘Persons of Interest’, briefly describing the characters who will appear in the novel, and then a second list of ‘Objects of Interest’ – in other words, some of the clues or significant happenings you need to look out for. In this book the objects of interest are particularly intriguing and include ‘a loud KNOCK on the front door – and nothing more’, ‘a BEAD CURTAIN which rustles for a while after a murderer passes’ and ‘a KNITTING BAG that moves without being touched.’ Being given this information in advance doesn’t help at all with solving the mystery, though, and doesn’t really have much purpose other than to add a bit of fun to the book!

I quickly narrowed the suspects down to two, and then correctly guessed which one was the culprit, but I couldn’t work out exactly why they had done it. The solution relies on Basil Willing’s psychiatric knowledge and I don’t think it’s something that would occur to most readers, so I was left feeling that McCloy hadn’t been very fair to us this time. Still, I did enjoy this book and will look forward to reading more from the series.

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

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

I loved Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, but it has taken me a few years to get around to reading his other novel available as a British Library Crime Classic, Somebody at the Door. I wish I’d found time to read it sooner, as it’s another one I really enjoyed – with one or two reservations.

One evening in the winter of 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling travels home from London by train, bringing with him a large sum of money – the wages for the workers of the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, which he is planning to distribute the next day. By the time he reaches his own front door, he has become seriously ill and dies later that night from what appears to be mustard gas poisoning. The money has disappeared, but was that the motive for his murder or could there be another reason? Suspicion falls on the other passengers who had shared his train carriage that evening and it is up to Inspector Holly to decide which of them did it and why.

This novel has a very similar structure to Verdict of Twelve. In that book, Postgate tells the stories of the twelve people who are serving on the jury for a murder trial, showing the effects of their backgrounds, experiences and prejudices on their decision-making. In Somebody at the Door, he explores the stories of the people on the train and how their paths had crossed with Grayling’s, giving them the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime. The book feels more like a collection of short stories than a conventional crime novel – although we do return briefly to Holly’s investigations now and then, the focus is much more on getting to know the personal history of each suspect rather than on watching the detective solve the mystery.

Some of the stories are very compelling in their own right, even if most of what we are told has very little relevance to the overall plot. I particularly liked the first one, about a young man who works for the Barrow and Furness Company and gets himself involved with a blackmailer, and the third one, which follows an attempt to help a refugee escape from Nazi Germany. The final story, however, about two people having an affair, didn’t interest me much at all – and unfortunately, this was one of the longest stories. This did spoil the book for me slightly, but after this final tale comes to an end we return to the Grayling murder again and things are wrapped up nicely.

I think what I liked best about this novel was the setting. Postgate writes about life in wartime Britain as only someone can who is actually living through it themselves (the book was published in 1943). Some of the characters’ stories are related directly to the war, such as the one about the refugee and another about a Corporal in the Home Guard, and the war is a constant presence in the novel as a whole, with references to bombing raids and the blackout.

I preferred Verdict of Twelve and would recommend starting with that one if you’re new to Raymond Postgate, but both books are entertaining and interesting reads as long as you don’t go into them expecting a traditional detective novel.

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham, one of the four Golden Age ‘Queens of Crime’, was best known for her Albert Campion detective series, but she also wrote several standalone crime novels. I have previously read and enjoyed The White Cottage Mystery, so had high hopes for this one, Black Plumes.

First published in 1940, Black Plumes is set almost entirely in the London home of the Ivory family and the art gallery they own in the building next door. The family matriarch is the elderly Mrs Gabrielle Ivory and the story is written from the perspective of her granddaughter, Frances. As the novel opens, Frances’ father, Meyrick, is on business abroad and has left his son-in-law Robert Madrigal (who is married to Frances’ half-sister Phillida) to run the gallery while he is away. In his absence, however, strange things have been happening: a broken vase, a slashed painting – and finally, an argument between Robert Madrigal and the artist David Field, after which Robert disappears.

A few weeks later, Robert’s dead body is discovered and suspicion quickly falls upon David – leaving Frances in a difficult situation, as David is the man she has just agreed to marry. She tells herself that he must be innocent, but how can she be sure?

As I’ve said, there is no Albert Campion to solve the mystery in this book, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on whether you’re a Campion fan. Instead, there’s Detective Inspector Bridie, an elderly Scotsman from Orkney who is brought in to investigate. However, we don’t really get to see any of his investigations and he doesn’t have a large part to play in the story. I didn’t solve the mystery myself – although I had narrowed it down to two suspects and one of them was correct – but since we see everything through Frances’ eyes rather than the detective’s, I think that made it more complicated.

There’s a touch of romance in the story too, particularly at the beginning where Frances and David agree to announce a fake engagement in order to prevent Frances having to marry someone else, but this storyline turned out not to be as much fun as it promised to be at first (Georgette Heyer does that sort of thing much better). It didn’t help that I found David so annoying; in fact, I didn’t like any of the characters much at all, although I enjoyed most of Gabrielle Ivory’s scenes and the contrast between her Victorian values and her granddaughter’s more modern ones.

After finishing this book, I looked at some other reviews and was confused when I saw everyone complaining about the use of a certain racist term to describe one of the suspects. It seems that this word has been edited out of the new edition I read and replaced with a less offensive term, which I think was a good idea in this case. The racist sentiment is still there, but it’s clear that it’s supposed to be the view of one of the characters rather than Allingham herself.

I think Black Plumes is worth reading if you like Allingham’s writing, but if it had been the first book I’d read by her, I’m not sure that I would have wanted to read more.

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

Since enjoying my first Georges Simenon book, The Man from London, last year, I’ve been looking forward to reading more. I had intended to try one of his Maigret books next, but the opportunity to read this one came up first; it’s a new Penguin Classics edition of a novel originally published in 1940, The Strangers in the House, and is translated by Howard Curtis. Unfortunately, at 224 pages in the paperback version, it’s just slightly too long to count towards Novellas in November!

The Strangers in the House is one of the many standalone novels written by Simenon that are described as romans dur, or ‘hard novels’. I’m not entirely sure what that term means, but as far as I can tell, it refers to the dark, noirish atmosphere, and the hard, bleak lives that the characters are leading. And the life of our protagonist, Hector Loursat, is certainly bleak! Once a successful lawyer, he fell into a depression when his wife left him eighteen years earlier and turned to alcohol for comfort. Since then, he has spent his time sitting alone with his books and a constant supply of red wine, living in the same house as his daughter Nicole, but barely aware of her presence.

Loursat’s miserable, solitary existence continues until, one night, he hears a gun being fired inside the house and discovers a dead body in one of the bedrooms. When Nicole and her friends become implicated in the murder investigation, Loursat is forced to acknowledge that his daughter is now a stranger to him…or is it in fact Loursat himself who is the stranger in the house?

There’s a detective fiction element to this novel, as Loursat sets out to uncover the truth behind the murder. When suspicion falls on Nicole’s lover, he agrees to defend the young man in court and finds that getting involved in the legal profession again gives him some purpose in life. However, although we see Loursat speaking to the suspects, getting to know Nicole’s circle of friends and learning all he can about the victim, this is not a conventional mystery novel and not one that the reader has much chance of being able to solve. If you’re expecting a story with clever twists and surprises you’ll be disappointed; even the court scenes which take up about half of the book lack suspense.

The book is much more successful as a psychological study of a lonely, reclusive man who is forced to confront his own behaviour and gradually engage with the people and things he has neglected for years. Watching Loursat’s reawakening as he becomes aware of the things that have been going on in his own house without his knowledge is fascinating. Whether or not he finds redemption and whether it’s too late to repair the damage to his relationship with Nicole I will leave you to discover for yourself, if you read the book. All I will say is that Simenon’s storytelling is realistic, unsentimental and ‘hard’.

Have you read this or any of Georges Simenon’s other books? Which can you recommend?

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