The White Hare by Jane Johnson

‘Once you’ve lived in this valley, you’ll never be free of it. Its uncanny beauty gets inside you, right into the marrow. It has its own climate, its own peculiar character. In the same way as people can draw you in and repel you at the same time; both beguile and frighten you.’

I love Jane Johnson’s books; they always have such fascinating settings – 17th century Morocco in The Sultan’s Wife, 15th century Spain in The Court of Lions, and the author’s native Cornwall in The Tenth Gift. She returns to Cornwall again for her new novel, The White Hare, a book steeped in the myths and legends of that region of England.

The novel begins in 1954, with Mila Prusik, her mother Magda and five-year-old daughter Janey arriving at White Cove near Eglosberyan on the Cornish coast. Having left Poland for England during World War II, the family had been settled in London until a disastrous relationship with a married man left Mila desperate to make a fresh start. She and Magda have bought a neglected old house in the Cornish countryside and are planning to restore it to its former glory and turn it into a guest house. However, not everyone is happy to see the house under new ownership and the Prusiks receive a hostile welcome.

As Mila and her mother begin their restoration work, they hear hints from their neighbours that the house has a sinister past and should be left alone. The two women think this is nonsense and continue with their plans, but Mila becomes increasingly concerned about the changes in Janey’s behaviour – particularly her obsession with Rabbit, a stuffed toy that seems to have a mind of its own. How is all of this related to sightings of the legendary White Hare and to the strange symbols and carvings Mila finds all over the house and its grounds?

The White Hare is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for a while, not just because of the supernatural aspects – which are subtle, ambiguous and unsettling – but also because of the way the setting is so beautifully described. As Jane Johnson explains in her author’s note, the town of Eglosberyan and its valley are not real but are inspired by several real places. I could picture the white house surrounded by dark woodland, the stream tumbling between mossy rocks, the lonely beach framed by granite cliffs – they are all brought so vividly to life.

I also found it interesting to follow the relationship between Mila and Magda. When they first arrive in Cornwall, Mila is timid and submissive, allowing herself and Janey to be bullied by the hard and domineering Magda, but both characters do grow and change throughout the novel as the valley works its magic on them. There’s also a love interest for Mila, but although I did like him I felt that this part of the story took too much of a dramatic turn towards the end. Still, this is a very enjoyable novel and, while it’s quite different from the other Jane Johnson books I’ve read, being set entirely in one period and not as far into the past, I liked it just as much.

I still have three novels by Jane Johnson left to read: The Sea Gate, The Salt Road and Pillars of Light. If you’ve read any of them, please help me decide which I should read next!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer – #1954Club

This is the first of two reviews I’ll be posting this week for Simon and Karen’s 1954 Club, one of their twice-yearly events where we all read and review books published in the same year. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific author I find there’s usually a book of hers to read for any year that is chosen! The Toll-Gate is her 1954 novel and one I hadn’t read before.

Like many of Heyer’s novels, this one is set in the Regency period. Our hero, the ‘overpoweringly-large’ Captain John Staple, has just returned from the Peninsular War and is finding it difficult to settle back into the monotony of civilian life. During a particularly tedious dinner party celebrating his cousin’s engagement, John decides to escape the next day and travel north to visit an old friend. Setting off alone on horseback, he becomes lost in the dark and rain and stumbles upon an isolated toll-gate somewhere in the Peak District. A frightened ten-year-old boy is collecting the tolls in the absence of his father, who has disappeared without explanation, so John decides to stay overnight to keep the boy company in the hope that his father will be back in the morning.

When the gatekeeper fails to return the next day, John finds himself helping to man the toll-gate for much longer than he’d expected, encountering highwaymen, thieves and Bow Street Runners. This is so much more exciting than one of cousin Saltash’s boring parties and John soon discovers that he’s in no hurry to leave, particularly when he meets Nell Stornaway, attractive, intelligent and, most importantly, tall – nearly as tall as John himself! Nell lives with her dying grandfather at nearby Kellands Manor and the old man’s heir has recently arrived, accompanied by a disreputable friend. But is it just the inheritance that has drawn them to Kellands or could they be mixed up in the disappearance of the gatekeeper?

Like The Quiet Gentleman, this is a Heyer novel where the focus is on the mystery rather than the romance. The romance is still there, but in a more understated way than usual. However, even though it’s love at first sight, it’s a romance I could believe in, because the hero and heroine seemed perfect for each other. I liked both of them – they are two of Heyer’s more sensible and mature characters, despite John’s love of adventure. And he certainly finds plenty of adventure when he chooses to spend the night at the toll-gate! The opening chapter set at Lord Saltash’s engagement party really doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel at all – it feels as though Heyer is setting up an Austen-style comedy of manners in that chapter, but once John sets out on his journey that aspect of the novel is abandoned and none of the characters we’ve met appear again. I was interested to learn that Heyer wrote the first chapter before deciding on the rest of the plot and had originally intended John’s family background to play a bigger part than it eventually did.

The dialogue is peppered with Heyer’s usual Regency slang, as well as the thieves’ cant used by characters such as Chirk the highwayman, and this adds colour and authenticity to the story. However, although I did enjoy this novel, it hasn’t become a favourite by Heyer; it seemed to lack her usual humour and I do tend to prefer her funnier books! Still, it was an entertaining read and a good choice for me for 1954 Club.

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Other books from 1954 previously reviewed on my blog:

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier

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This is also book 17/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story Agatha wrote abroad’. After the Funeral, a Hercule Poirot mystery first published in 1953, doesn’t include any travel and is set entirely in England, but it was written while Christie was away on an archaeological dig with her husband Max.

After the Funeral begins, as the title suggests, just after the funeral of the wealthy Richard Abernethie with the family assembling to hear the reading of the will by his lawyer, Mr Entwhistle. As he has no surviving children of his own, it seems that Richard’s fortune is to be divided between his brother and sister, two of his sisters-in-law, and several of his nieces and nephews and their spouses. After hearing the terms of the will, Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s sister, remarks that her brother was murdered. This is not something that has occurred to anyone else, as they have all accepted that Richard died of natural causes, so Cora’s comments are not taken seriously. The next day, however, Cora herself is found dead, having been brutally murdered in her bed.

Mr Entwhistle, the lawyer, is convinced there must be a connection between the two deaths and begins to interview the family members, hoping that they will all be able to prove themselves innocent and avoid bringing shame on the family. As the mystery deepens, he decides that he needs to call in an expert – and so he contacts his friend, Hercule Poirot, who listens to the facts and agrees that an investigation is required…

This is maybe not one of the better known Poirot novels, but it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. After a confusing start – Christie throws a huge number of characters into the opening chapters and it takes a while to straighten out their relationships and remember who they all are – I became completely absorbed in this fascinating mystery, having a few guesses at the identity of the culprit and getting it wrong every time! It’s one of those mysteries where literally any of the characters (apart from Poirot, of course) could have been the murderer and the solution relies on a wonderful twist, which I don’t think many readers will have seen coming. Well done if you did, but I certainly didn’t.

Poirot himself doesn’t have a large part to play in the novel until the second half; before that, it’s actually Mr Entwhistle who is trying to investigate the deaths, by questioning suspects, speaking to doctors and establishing alibis. During that first half of the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t really essential for Poirot to appear in the story at all as Mr Entwhistle seemed to be doing such a good job! However, it’s Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ that are necessary to spot that final crucial clue and solve the mystery.

Next month’s theme for the Read Christie challenge is ‘a story featuring adventure’. There are plenty of those to choose from!

They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set after WWII’. There were plenty of options for this one – any book published after 1945 would count – and I eventually decided on They Do It with Mirrors, a 1952 Miss Marple novel.

The story begins with Miss Marple meeting an old friend, Ruth, who tells her that she’s worried about her sister, Carrie Louise, although she doesn’t give any specific reasons for her concern. Carrie Louise, like Ruth, has had several husbands and her latest, Lewis Serrocold, has established a rehabilitation centre for juvenile criminals at their home, Stonygates. Miss Marple agrees to go and visit Stonygates to see if she can find out what’s going on and, on her arrival, she finds a large number of people assembled at the house, including Carrie Louise’s daughter, granddaughter and stepson, as well as several other family members and servants.

As Miss Marple gets to know the various members of the household, she also begins to feel that something is not quite right – and she is proved to be correct when Christian Gulbrandsen, the son of Carrie Louise’s first husband, is found shot dead in his room. At the same time, Lewis Serrocold is shot at in his study by one of the ‘juvenile delinquents’, a young man who claims to be Winston Churchill’s son. Lewis is unharmed, but as one of the other characters remarks, “you don’t expect murder and attempted murder in the same house on the same night!” The police, led by Inspector Curry, soon arrive on the scene and begin their investigations, but it’s Miss Marple, of course, who eventually solves the mystery.

I don’t think this is one of Christie’s best, but I did still enjoy it – and unlike my last Christie novel, Death on the Nile, where I guessed the solution almost immediately, I didn’t manage to solve this one before the culprit was revealed. The title of the book refers to the fact that things and people are not always what they seem and sometimes, like a magician, ‘they do it with mirrors’ to cause confusion and misdirection. Well, I certainly allowed myself to be misdirected, but I do think it would have been possible to work it out if I’d been paying more attention.

This book has an interesting setting which gives Christie a chance to explore Lewis Serrocold’s work with the young offenders and the way in which these young men were viewed by 1950s society. This doesn’t really play a big part in the story and it could have worked just as well as a conventional country house mystery without this element, but it does provide some extra interest.

December’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set during bad weather’. The suggested title is The Sittaford Mystery, which is one I haven’t read yet.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton

I read my first Henrietta Hamilton novel, Answer in the Negative, earlier this year and wasn’t particularly impressed by it; I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read any more of her books, but I believe in giving an author a second chance and The Two Hundred Ghost sounded very tempting. I’m glad I gave it a try as I enjoyed it much more than Answer in the Negative.

The Two Hundred Ghost was first published in 1956 and is the first book in Hamilton’s Johnny and Sally Heldar mystery series. The unusual title refers to 200 Charing Cross Road, the address of the antiquarian bookshop in London which is owned by Johnny Heldar’s family and said to be haunted by a ghost. Sally Merton is one of the booksellers in the shop; she is not yet married to Johnny when we first meet her and has been attracting some unwelcome attention from one of the male employees, Victor Butcher. Mr Butcher is an unpleasant bully, disliked by everybody who knows him, so when he is found dead in his office with a knife in his back, there are plenty of suspects…including the ghost, which is sighted in the building shortly before the murder takes place!

This is a very short novel and the plot moves along at a steady pace, making it a quick and easy read; although, as with the other Hamilton novel I read, I felt that there was a bit of repetition surrounding discussions of alibis, timing of events and layouts of rooms, this one has a better balance between these technical aspects of mystery-solving and the more ‘human’ aspects, such as motives and personalities. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but I don’t think the author was unfairly holding back information from the reader and it may have been possible to solve the mystery if you were paying more attention than I was and didn’t miss any clues!

Henrietta Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) worked in a London bookshop in the years following World War II and had personal experience of selling antiquarian books, which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity. Bookselling is not just a background to the novel, but an important part of the plot, and the author’s knowledge and interest in ‘incunabula’ (early printed books) comes through very strongly.

I was pleased to find that Sally plays a bigger part in the investigations in this book than she did in Answer in the Negative and makes some important discoveries which prove to be turning points in the mystery – although, remembering that it was written in the 1950s, there’s always a sense that Johnny feels the need to protect her because she’s a woman. Still, both Johnny and Sally are characters who are easy to like and to care about; it was nice to get to know them before they were married and to see their relationship develop (although it does so quite subtly and their romance is only one small part of the story). Having enjoyed this book, I would like to meet the Heldars again – luckily, there are another two books in the series and I’m hoping they will be reissued soon too!

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

Dead March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs – #RIPXV

This is the third of George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn mysteries I’ve read. I enjoyed the other two (A Knife for Harry Dodd and Death in Room Five), but I think this one is the best so far.

First published in 1951, Dead March for Penelope Blow is set in the small English town of Nesbury, home to the Blow family who live in the big house adjoining the bank which used to be the family business. The novel opens with Penelope Blow, one of the two surviving daughters of old William Blow, the banker, calling at Scotland Yard in the hope of seeing Inspector Littlejohn. Littlejohn, however, is away attending a murder trial and Penelope is forced to return to Nesbury, leaving a message for the Inspector to call her as soon as possible. Unfortunately, before Littlejohn has time to contact her and find out what she had been so desperate to tell him, Penelope falls to her death from a window while leaning out to water flowers in a window box.

As Littlejohn, with the help of his assistant Cromwell, begins to investigate the circumstances of Penelope Blow’s death, an intricate mystery unfolds involving family secrets, wills and inheritances, forgeries and thefts, and a suspected case of poisoning. The novel is carefully plotted, with some clever red herrings, and various revelations coming at just the right points in the story. It’s not really a very original mystery, but I still found it intriguing and although I correctly guessed who did it, I didn’t manage to work everything out before Littlejohn and Cromwell did.

What makes this a particularly enjoyable novel, though, is the strong, almost Dickensian, characterisation (in fact, when Cromwell is listening to the housekeeper, Mrs Buckley, talking about her ‘umble home, he thinks of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield). From Mr Jelley, the frail, elderly butler, and John Slype, the cheerful little window cleaner, to the fierce and beautiful Lenore Blow and her father Captain Broome, whom Littlejohn describes as ‘like a character out of Kipling’, they are all very strongly drawn and each of them, however minor, adds something special to the story. In contrast, Littlejohn and Cromwell are quite ordinary, but I do like them both!

Another interesting thing about this book is that, although it’s set in the post-war period and there are a few references to this (we are reminded that food rationing is still in place, for example), the story feels as though it could have been taking place in a much earlier period. The Blow family almost seem to be frozen in time, with relationships between the male and female members of the household and between servants and employers as rigidly structured as they would have been in Victorian times. The social history aspect of the novel is almost as fascinating as the mystery.

Having enjoyed this one so much, I’m looking forward to reading more from the Littlejohn series!

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

This is my third and final book read for this year’s RIP Challenge.