Every Eye by Isobel English – #1956Club

This week Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their club events, where we all read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1956, which seems to have been a fantastic year for publishing! There were a lot of books that sounded very appealing to me, but there were only two already on my TBR and I decided on this one, Every Eye by Isobel English. This short novella, published by Persephone, has fewer than 150 pages (including the preface by Neville Braybrooke), so was perfect for me at the moment when I’m struggling to concentrate on longer books; my usual reading patterns seem to have been disrupted all year and I don’t know when they will get back to normal.

Anyway, Every Eye is narrated by Hatty, a woman in her thirties who is married to Stephen, a younger man. At the beginning of the book, she and Stephen are preparing to go on a belated honeymoon to Ibiza, when she receives the news that Cynthia has died. Who is Cynthia? Well, she’s the woman who married Hatty’s Uncle Otway many years earlier and who was to become one of the most influential figures in her young life. As Hatty and Stephen travel by train across France and Spain, the story moves back and forth between past and present as Hatty reflects on her childhood and her memories of Cynthia, Uncle Otway – and the older man, Jasper, with whom she had her first romantic relationship.

The book is structured in a way that I would often have found irritating; one continuous narrative with no chapter breaks and sudden jumps between past and present tense as Hatty alternates between telling the story of her trip to Ibiza and reminiscing about episodes from her past. Here, though, the structure works very well and, perhaps because the book is so short, it doesn’t have time to become annoying or confusing. And Isobel English writes beautifully! I am in the habit now of looking out for interesting, inspiring or thought-provoking passages to quote in my monthly Commonplace Book posts; with some books I struggle to find any, but with Every Eye there was a line or a paragraph worthy of being quoted on almost every page. There’s a lovely sense of place too; the descriptions of the scenery through which Hatty and Stephen pass on their journey across Europe are gorgeous and vivid:

Trailing banks of giant blue convolvulus, purple bougainvillea twisted into the formal intricacy of black wrought iron – all hang downward toward the sea. Lemons in the hotel garden, still green but ripening in patches, and below the shelving gardens, the wilder unfenced land parceled into small plots, sloping away to the sea’s edge: everywhere the stunted grey of the olive trees. With our small rationed vision we are like greedy children looking everywhere for more and more; we stare into the brilliance like seers, seeking an unsimple and deeper quality; when we do not find it, we call it surfeit.

The title of the book refers to Hatty’s ‘lazy eye’, which gives her the appearance of not looking straight ahead. She considers this to be a deformity – something that makes her unattractive and undesirable – and even after having an operation to correct it, it still has an impact on her self-confidence. Sight and vision are important themes in the novel, not just in the sense of Hatty having eye problems, but also in how we see other people and how they see us. For example:

After the first six months of our knowing each other, I found it impossible to carry within my mind a clear picture of myself in relation to Jasper. My vision was blurred, because I had outwardly accepted the state.

Or this:

I thought always before the operation on my eye that the source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision; I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of inward impediment.

Despite her problems with vision, or maybe because of them, it seems that by the end of the story Hatty can see things more clearly than anyone else. I had heard that this book had one of those amazing last lines that make you catch your breath, so I was expecting something special – and yes, it was worth waiting for (but not quite as powerful as the last sentence of another Persephone, Little Boy Lost). This is a beautiful, atmospheric book and although it’s not one of my absolute favourite Persephones, it’s certainly one I’m glad I read and a great choice for 1956 Club!

Here are some other books from 1956, previously reviewed here on my blog:

Death in Cyprus by MM Kaye
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes
Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Murder to Music by Margaret Newman

The latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series is a book by an author I thought was new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few of her books under another of her pseudonyms, Anne Melville. This one, Murder to Music, was her first novel and was originally published in 1959 under the name Margaret Newman. It’s an excellent murder mystery and could have been the start of a great series had the author not moved on to other genres (such as the Anne Melville family sagas).

Delia Jones is on the managing committee of the Metropolitan Choir, who are preparing to give a performance of a new mass composed by their conductor, Evan Tredegar. At the beginning of the novel, we meet the other members of the committee, whom we quickly discover are not the happiest group of people. Below the surface, there are tensions, secrets and resentments, some of which we won’t be aware of or fully understand until later in the story. The assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is particularly unpopular with the rest of the choir, so when he is shot dead just as the performance draws to a close there is no shortage of suspects.

Detective Superintendent Simon Hudson is watching from the audience and is able to begin an immediate investigation. However, things are going to be slightly difficult for Simon…because Delia Jones happens to be his girlfriend. Can she be ruled out as a suspect? Then, just as Simon thinks he has uncovered the motive and is about to identify the murderer, a second death takes place and he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are strong, with some of them given interesting back stories, and the reasons behind the complex relationships and long-standing feuds between the members of the choir feel believable. I also liked the setting, which made a change from the country house or small village settings which are so common in this type of detective novel. I’m not sure whether Margaret Newman had a musical background, but I felt that she seemed to really understand what was involved in the staging of a musical performance and what it was like to be part of a choir.

As a mystery, I thought the plot worked well and I was surprised by some of the developments in the second half of the book, having been led in the wrong direction for most of the first half! I kept changing my mind between one suspect and another, but in the end I was happy just to let Simon Hudson solve the mystery for me. It’s a shame this seems to be the only book featuring Simon and Delia, but I will be reading more by this author, under her various pseudonyms, and have the third book in her Hardie trilogy lined up to read soon.

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

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

It’s good to see so many forgotten authors of crime fiction being brought back into print by various publishers recently. Henrietta Hamilton is another one I had never heard of until I came across Answer in the Negative, originally published in 1959 and now available as part of Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Set in the world of 1950s journalism, the novel follows husband and wife detective team Johnny and Sally Heldar, who are called in by their friend, Toby Lorn, to investigate a case of poison pen letters and practical jokes. Toby runs a newspaper cuttings agency in London’s Fleet Street, providing archived photographs to writers and publishers, and it is one of his assistants, Frank Morningside, who is the target of the nasty letters. Johnny and Sally quickly discover that there is no shortage of suspects as Morningside is disliked by so many of the other archive workers, but before they have time to identify the culprit, Morningside is found dead in the doorway of his office, having been hit on the head by a box of heavy glass negatives. Suddenly the Heldars find themselves investigating a murder case, but can they stop the murderer before he or she kills again?

Answer in the Negative is a short book and kept me entertained for a day or two, but it’s not one of the better ‘forgotten crime novels’ I’ve been reading lately. It got off to a promising start, but quickly became bogged down with repetitive discussions of alibis and lists of who was where at what time. I know other readers enjoy that sort of mystery more than I do, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. The characterisation didn’t seem very strong either, which is a problem in a book where so many characters are introduced in a short space of time. Johnny and Sally themselves are likeable enough but they are no Tommy and Tuppence and I found the dialogue between them quite wooden. Their partnership is not a very equal one and it’s quite clear that Johnny is regarded as the detective and Sally as just his helper, but I was pleased to see that she does occasionally go off and have adventures of her own – even if Johnny isn’t very happy about it!

I did find the setting interesting and enjoyed the little insights we are given into 1950s life; it was particularly fascinating to see what was involved in archiving and the use of photographs in books and newspapers in an era before computers and digital images made everything available at our fingertips. For some reason, though, the constant references to ‘pix’ and ‘negs’ really irritated me! I know it’s realistic that the characters would have used that terminology for pictures and negatives, but it was so grating. Again, not something that will bother everyone, of course.

I don’t think Henrietta Hamilton is an author I would want to read again, but other reviews of this book are more positive than mine so I hope Agora will continue to publish her other titles for those who are enjoying them.

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

I don’t think I’ve read enough of Rose Tremain’s books to really describe myself as a fan or as any kind of expert on her work, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve read by her – Restoration and Merivel, her two novels set in 17th century England and France, and The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the Second World War – so I decided to give her recent memoir, Rosie, a try.

Judging purely by the cover and the subtitle Scenes from a Vanished Life, I was expecting something light, charming and nostalgic, but the reality was very different and the book left me feeling quite sad. It’s a slim book covering only the first eighteen years of the author’s life and I think it’s fair to say that Rose – or Rosie, as she was known when she was younger – didn’t have the happiest start to life. Born into an upper-middle-class family, with all the privilege and opportunity that comes with that, the one thing Rosie lacks is parental love. She is ten years old when her playwright father, Keith, leaves her mother, Jane, for a younger woman. Jane quickly remarries and sends Rosie and her sister, Jo, to boarding school, an incident Tremain thinks of as ‘The Great Casting Away’ and which she describes with both resentment and an attempt to understand:

When we were safely away in our cold dormitories at Crofton Grange, she and her friends could forget all about their children’s future. Instead, they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they’d loved.

The child Rosie is often hurt and confused by her mother’s actions, and not much has changed by the time she reaches adulthood; when her first play is broadcast on BBC radio in 1976, Jane says she is too busy to listen as she is going out to lunch that day. Rosie does acknowledge, however, that her mother’s lack of affection for her could be partly due to her own upbringing. Many of Rosie’s childhood memories revolve around holidays spent at her maternal grandparents’ home, Linkenholt Manor, but it quickly becomes clear that it is the house that holds a special place in her heart and not her grandparents themselves. Mabel and Roland Dudley, Jane’s parents, are depicted as cold, stern people who have struggled to move on from the loss of their two sons and see their daughter as a poor substitute; their granddaughters interest them even less. I found this so sad because my own childhood relationship with my grandparents was completely different – warm and loving and full of fun. The only love Rosie seems to receive comes from her nanny, Vera Sturt, and I was glad that she had at least one person who cared about her, although even this relationship was lost when she was sent away to boarding school.

As the title of the book suggests, the world of Tremain’s childhood is a world that has now largely vanished. Her account of her school days, of beliefs and attitudes and of society in general could only have been written by someone growing up in the 1950s and belonging to a certain class. As Rosie becomes a young adult and sets her sights on attending Oxford University, she sees her dreams shattered yet again when her mother insists on sending her to a Swiss ‘finishing school’ instead. Jane doesn’t see the need for her daughter to continue her education when all a woman needs to do to succeed in life is to find a rich husband.

Despite her privileged background then, Tremain still had obstacles to overcome as she grew from Rosie into Rose and embarked on her writing career. Because her memoir ends before the publication of her first book, she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing her writing, but she does give us a few insights into how incidents, people and places from her early life later found their way into her novels. I’m sure this would have meant more to me if I had read more of her work! The book ends very abruptly, which was disappointing as I would have liked to have continued to follow Rose through her adult years. Still, it was interesting getting to know the young Rosie and her world. I will have to read more of her books soon; if there are any you would recommend please let me know.

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

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

In this, the eighth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, Flavia is back in England following her adventures at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, which are described in the previous novel As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. If you haven’t yet met Flavia I would recommend starting at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; it’s not essential, as this one does stand alone as a murder mystery, but I think you’ll get more out of it if you already know Flavia and understand her family background.

At the beginning of Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Alan Bradley’s books always have great titles), twelve-year-old Flavia returns to Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home, hoping for a warm welcome. Instead, the household feels strangely subdued and quiet. The reason for this becomes clear when Flavia learns that her father is seriously ill in hospital. Desperate to go and see him immediately, she is disappointed to be told that Father needs to rest and her visit will have to wait until the next day. The thought of staying in the house with her two unpleasant sisters Feely and Daffy and her annoying little cousin Undine is unbearable, so Flavia hops on to Gladys, her trusty bicycle, and goes out for a ride.

Calling at the home of her friend, the vicar’s wife, Flavia agrees to take a message to Roger Sambridge, an elderly woodcarver. Finding Roger’s door unlocked, she enters the house – only to discover the body of the woodcarver hanging upside down behind the bedroom door. Apart from a cat, there’s no sign that anyone else has been inside the room. It seems that Flavia has stumbled upon another mystery to solve…

This book is definitely an improvement on the previous one; I hadn’t really liked Flavia being taken out of her usual environment, so I was pleased to have her back at Buckshaw, riding Gladys and conducting experiments in her beloved chemistry laboratory. I was disappointed, though, that we didn’t see her interacting more with the other members of the de Luce household. Before she left for school in Canada at the end of the sixth book, there seemed to be hints that her relationships with Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne, in case you’re wondering) could be about to turn a corner, but in this book they barely speak to each other. I was also surprised that the Nide, the secret society which played a part in the plots of the last two novels, was only referred to once or twice – not that I’m complaining as I wasn’t very keen on that particular plot development anyway.

Although Flavia has only aged by a year or two since the beginning of the series, she does feel more mature now and is more daring in the methods of investigation she chooses to use. However, she is still only twelve and I found it unconvincing that she would really have been able to do some of the things she does in the novel (such as posing as a biographer in a meeting with a publisher). On the other hand, Flavia has always been unusual for her age, which is part of the charm of these books. I did enjoy watching her solve the crime and although I guessed one or two of the twists, I didn’t guess everything.

This is, I think, the second Flavia novel to be set at Christmas, but unlike the other one (I Am Half-Sick of Shadows), it doesn’t have a very festive atmosphere – which is understandable, with Father so ill in hospital. The last page of the book wasn’t really what I was expecting and I am now looking forward to reading the next one, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, to see what Alan Bradley has in store next for Flavia and her family.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery)

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).