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.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

There are many events taking place in the book blogging calendar this month and AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books is one of them. I have a few books by Australian authors waiting to be read, but I decided to read one that has been waiting a long time: Kate Morton’s 2012 novel, The Secret Keeper. I’ve previously read three books by Morton and had mixed experiences with them; I loved The Forgotten Garden but was slightly disappointed in both The Distant Hours and The Clockmaker’s Daughter, so wasn’t sure whether I wanted to bother with this one. I’m pleased I did, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected to.

Like Morton’s other books, The Secret Keeper is set in multiple time periods. It begins in 1961, with sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson hiding in a wooden tree house during a family celebration. Laurel just wants some time alone to think, but this means that, from her position in the tree, she is able to see a strange man approaching the Nicolson farmhouse – and is witness to a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. We then jump forward fifty years to 2011, when the Nicolsons are gathering at their childhood home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Laurel, now a successful actress, is still haunted by what she saw on that long ago day and decides that, with Dorothy in poor health, she needs to find out what really happened before her mother dies and takes her secrets with her.

As Laurel begins to investigate her mother’s past, the novel moves back and forth between 2011 and 1940s London where the young Dorothy is looking forward to marrying war photographer Jimmy as soon as their financial situation improves. Dorothy has also made a new friend (or so she thinks): the beautiful, wealthy Vivien, who lives in the house opposite. But when she is betrayed by Vivien, Dorothy puts together a plan of revenge – with unexpected and tragic results.

As is usually the case when I read books set in more than one time period, it was the historical one I enjoyed the most. The present day story was interesting – I enjoyed Laurel’s interactions with her younger brother Gerry, who helps her to uncover the truth about their mother – but I felt that it was effectively just a frame for the much more compelling story of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien. I was surprised by how absorbed I became in these parts of the novel, considering that I found Dorothy a particularly unpleasant and irritating character! I did like Jimmy, was intrigued by Vivien and loved the wartime setting, especially as things build to a climax during the London Blitz.

Somewhere in the second half of the book I started to have some suspicions regarding Laurel’s mother and the secrets she was hiding, but this came late enough that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story and I was pleased to find that my guess was correct. Of Kate Morton’s other books, I only have The House at Riverton and The Lake House left to read. Which should I read first?

Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies

After six novels set in Asia, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed, Dinah Jefferies has recently switched her focus to Europe during World War II. Last year’s The Tuscan Contessa was set in 1940s Italy; her new book, Daughters of War, is the first in a new trilogy set in wartime France.

It’s 1944 and France is occupied by the Nazis. In a cottage in the Dordogne live three sisters, all in their twenties, who are each doing their best to protect themselves and their friends and neighbours and to ensure that they all survive the war. Hélène, the eldest, took on the responsibility of caring for the other two after their father died and their mother departed for England, and as well as trying to look after her little family, she also works as a nurse alongside the village doctor. Élise is the rebellious and daring sister, the one who is determined to do whatever she can to help the Resistance, whether that is hiding weapons in the cottage grounds or intercepting and passing on messages. Finally there’s Florence, the innocent and kind-hearted dreamer, who is always happiest when she is at home, spending time in the kitchen or the garden.

As the Occupation continues and liberation still seems like a distant dream, the sisters are faced with a series of important decisions to make. Should they give shelter to Tomas, a deserter from the German army? Can they trust Jack, a British SOE soldier who arrives injured at the cottage one night, asking for help? All they can do is follow their instincts and try to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and working to regain France’s freedom. Along the way, each of the sisters has her own set of personal challenges to overcome, family secrets are exposed and the bonds between the three of them are tested. As the first in a trilogy, not everything is resolved in this book, but the foundations are laid for the characters and ideas to be developed further in the second and third novels.

The book is written from the perspectives of all three sisters; we spend a few chapters with one, then a few chapters with another. I felt the closest to Hélène, although each of the sisters is a strongly drawn character with a distinct personality of her own. Élise has potentially the most exciting storylines, but I would have liked to have read about her activities with the Resistance in more detail – they are skimmed over quite quickly and I thought this was a missed opportunity. I also found it unconvincing that the sisters are so ready to trust and confide in everyone they meet, even when it appears that someone around them might be a traitor; I would have expected them to have shown more caution.

Those are the negatives, but there were also plenty of positives; I particularly loved the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and villages of the Périgord Noir, the region of France where the story is set. I’m sure I’ll be reading the other two books in the trilogy, whenever they are available.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 42/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Green Gauntlet by RF Delderfield

I loved the first two books in RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy and am sorry it has taken me three years to get around to reading the third book, The Green Gauntlet. It was lovely to be back in the Shallowford Valley and become reacquainted with Paul and Claire Craddock and their family, friends and neighbours.

If you’re new to this trilogy, I would strongly recommend beginning with the first novel, Long Summer Day, which is set in the Edwardian period and tells the story of how the young Paul Craddock buys an estate in the Devon countryside and becomes Squire of Shallowford, gaining the trust and respect of the other valley families along the way. The second book, Post of Honour, continues the story through World War I and finally, in The Green Gauntlet, we follow some of the same characters throughout World War II and its aftermath. By the time you reach this third and final novel there are a huge number of characters and storylines to keep track of, which makes it difficult to give a summary of the plot, so instead I will just pick out a few things that I particularly enjoyed.

First of all, there’s the conflict between the old ways of life and the new as change comes to the valley in the form of new technology, improvements to transport networks and differences in generational attitudes. Paul is disappointed to find that many of the younger people, including several of his own children, don’t share his love for their little corner of England and are only interested in the money they can make out of it. Although the book was published in 1968, some of the issues it covers, such as the over-development of land and destruction of the environment are still very relevant. There’s a sense that Paul himself belongs to a world that is rapidly disappearing and that the valley he remembers now exists only in his mind:

His patriotism, as she saw it, was at once more localised and more broadly based, drawing its strength from the books he read and the thoughts he thought. It had to do with Valley crafts and Valley loyalties, with the food they grew and the dialects they used. It reached back into the history of history books that, for most people, herself included, had no more reality than the stories of the Old Testament but for him had a message that had regulated the whole of his life since she had known him. If it brought him comfort now who was she to question it?

Another of the novel’s themes is the war, of course, and Delderfield occasionally takes us into the heart of the fighting where several of our characters – including Paul and Claire’s twin sons, Andy and Stevie, and their son-in-law Rumble Patrick are serving in various branches of the armed forces. The valley itself doesn’t remain unscathed either, with bombs falling, sea mines being washed ashore and a German pilot descending in the woods. Although there’s plenty of action and always something happening in the Valley, the story moves along at a leisurely pace and the focus is on the daily lives of the characters and the relationships between them. I was particularly gripped by the story of Andy’s wife Margaret, who finds herself married to one twin while in love with the other and with no guarantee that either of them would come home alive.

I do think this book could have been made a lot shorter without losing any of the plot and the last few chapters seemed to go on forever as every loose end was tied up. Despite this, I was still sorry to reach the final page and to have to leave the Valley and its people behind. Luckily, RF Delderfield wrote plenty of other novels which I can look forward to reading and I already have one of them, Farewell, the Tranquil Mind, waiting on my shelf.

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021. Obviously I’ve failed to complete my list this year, but I’ve almost finished two more books that I won’t have time to review by the deadline, so I’m not too unhappy with my result!

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

I enjoyed Caroline Lea’s previous book, The Glass Woman, but even if I hadn’t already known that I liked her writing I would have been drawn to The Metal Heart anyway by that beautiful cover! Books don’t always live up to their covers, of course, but I think this one almost does.

Set during World War II, the novel takes as its inspiration the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. Around this, Caroline Lea has created a fictional story involving two identical twin sisters, Dorothy and Constance – known as Dot and Con. The sisters have very different personalities but are devoted to each other, so when Con suffers a traumatic experience which leaves her afraid to be around other people, the two of them leave their home in Kirkwall on mainland Orkney and take refuge on the small, uninhabited island of Selkie Holm. Needless to say, Con is not at all happy when hundreds of Italian prisoners arrive on the island, along with their guards, and when a romance begins to blossom between Dot and Cesare, one of the Italians, the sisters’ bond becomes strained.

The novel is written from several different perspectives, giving Con, Dot and Cesare each a chance to tell their own side of the story. Despite their identical appearance, the twins have opposite outlooks on life – Dot is warm, friendly and trusting, while Con, understandably, is withdrawn, cautious and slow to trust. There is a romantic element to the novel, of course, but although the love story between Dot and Cesare is important, its real significance is in the impact it has on the relationship between the sisters. When we first meet Dot, she has sacrificed her own freedom and happiness for Con’s sake, but over the course of the novel, through her romance with Cesare – and also her work in the prisoners’ hospital on the island – she must find a way to lead her own life while helping Con to lead hers.

Although the author has changed some of the historical and geographical details, such as names and dates, we know that there really was a prisoner of war camp in Orkney and that the Italian prisoners really did create a chapel from metal and concrete, which can still be seen on the island of Lamb Holm today. Through the story of Cesare and the other prisoners, we see what conditions were like in the camp and the treatment they received from the guards, as well as their reaction to being ordered to build barriers to prevent further attacks on the harbour at Scapa Flow (these would become known as the Churchill Barriers). At the end of the book, Caroline Lea explains which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are fictional, but while I could understand why she adjusted the timeline to give the story more urgency, I couldn’t see why it was necessary to create a fictional island, Selkie Holm, when we know that the name of the island where the camp was located was Lamb Holm.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel (apart from the fact that it is written in the present tense, which is never going to be my favourite style). The descriptions of the Orkney Islands – the landscape, the sea, the people and the Orcadian folklore – are atmospheric and vivid; I have never been, but I’m sure it must be a fascinating place to visit. Of the two Caroline Lea books I’ve read, I preferred this one, although I did love the Icelandic setting of The Glass Woman too and will look forward to seeing where her next book will be set!

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. The book will be published on 29th April 2021.

Book 21/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Hardie Inheritance by Anne Melville

The Hardie Inheritance, first published in 1990 and recently reissued, is the last in a trilogy of novels following a family of English wine merchants from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. The first two books are The House of Hardie and The Daughter of Hardie, but if you haven’t read them it shouldn’t be a problem as the author provides enough of the backstory for new readers to be able to pick up the threads, without completely spoiling the plots of the other two books.

While the previous novel covered the period of World War I and its aftermath, The Hardie Inheritance takes us forward to 1932. There are now only three Hardies – Grace, Philip and their mother, Lucy – still living at Greystones, the family estate in Oxfordshire, and they have settled into a quiet, uneventful life together. Grace, now in her late thirties and expecting to remain a spinster, keeps herself busy with her sculpting, while her brother Philip, who returned from the war suffering from shell shock and weak lungs, fills his days looking after the gardens. Then, one sunny day in July, four unexpected visitors arrive at Greystones and set Grace’s life on a different course.

First, there’s Ellis Faraday and his six-year-old daughter, Trish. Ellis, a photographer, is the son of the architect who designed Greystones and he is keen to take pictures of the interior. At first, Grace is reluctant, aware that due to lack of money she has not been able to maintain the building properly, but she agrees to let him see the house and soon he and Trish have become part of her life – although not quite in the way you might expect. Also that same day, they are visited by Rupert, a cousin who has just discovered his connection with the Hardie branch of the family. And finally, Andy Frith, the gardener’s son who had once been Grace’s beloved childhood friend, returns from France to see his dying father.

The novel follows the stories of all of these people and more, but with a particular focus on Grace as she comes to terms with the changes in her household and faces some important decisions to secure the future of Greystones, and on Trish as she grows into a woman and begins her own search for happiness. Meanwhile, the outbreak of World War II poses new challenges for the Hardies and their friends. The whole novel takes place within a domestic setting and we don’t actually see any of the fighting, but we do see the impact it has on the lives of those left at home. One of my favourite storylines involves Trish being sent to Oxford to collect a family of evacuees from London who, it seems, would rather not be evacuated at all. And although there would obviously have been many people who suffered much more greatly, I still had sympathy for Rupert whose beautiful home, Castlemere, is requisitioned for use as a boarding school!

I think The Hardie Inheritance is my favourite of the three books in the trilogy. There were a lot of new characters introduced early in the book, but I had no problem keeping track of them all and I became very fond of some of them, particularly Trish. Some parts of the book were quite predictable, but others took me by surprise, particularly the ending which I hadn’t expected but which, when I thought about it, was the perfect way to bring the saga of Greystones to a close.

Anne Melville (a pseudonym of Margaret Potter) was a very prolific author who wrote in several different genres using different names – I have read her mystery novel, Murder to Music, which was published under the name Margaret Newman, but most of her other books are out of print so I hope more of them will eventually be made available again.

Book 20/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

I loved this! I’ve never read Kate Quinn before, although she has been recommended to me several times, so I’m pleased that my first experience of her work has been such a good one. The Rose Code wasn’t a perfect book, but the few flaws that I noted were quickly outweighed by the gripping plot, strong characters and interesting historical setting.

The story takes place in and around Bletchley Park, the English country house which became the home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers, and follows three of the young women who work there. Two of them, Osla Kendall and Mab Churt, meet on the train in 1940 as they travel to Bletchley Park, unsure as to what their new jobs will involve but determined to do their best to help the war effort. Osla, a beautiful, wealthy young socialite, is desperate to prove that she is more than just a ‘silly debutante’; the outspoken and fiercely independent Mab is a working class girl from the East End of London who, having escaped from a life of poverty, wants to make a better future for herself. At Bletchley Park, both will find the opportunities they need to change their lives – and so does a third young woman, Beth Finch. Beth has grown up under the thumb of her domineering mother and looks set to remain a spinster all her life, but when Osla and Mab notice her special gift for crosswords and puzzles, they encourage her to overcome her shyness and join them at Bletchley.

Although most of the novel is set during the war years, we occasionally jump forward in time to 1947. On the eve of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, two of the three Bletchley Park women have received a summons for help from the third, who has been confined to an asylum. However, the friendship between the three of them broke down before the war ended and the two women who are free aren’t sure if they really want to help the one who is imprisoned. What happened to destroy their friendship? Was there really a traitor within Bletchley Park? And will the mysterious Rose Code ever be solved?

The Rose Code is a long novel, but was quicker to read than I’d expected because I became so engrossed in the stories of Osla, Mab and Beth. Their work at Bletchley Park is fascinating to read about, particularly Beth’s as a cryptanalyst, working with the legendary Dilly Knox. Although it all sounds very complicated – and I’m pleased the Allies didn’t have to rely on me to break the Enigma codes – Kate Quinn does a good job of explaining how the various machines were used and what the different decryption methods involved. She also explores the psychological impact of carrying out such highly confidential work; all of the codebreakers sign up to the Official Secrets Act and are banned from discussing their work with friends and family or even with people from different departments within Bletchley Park itself. This raises the interesting question of whether it’s ever acceptable to break your oath of secrecy – and if not, what sort of strain will that put on your relationships with other people?

Several real historical figures appear in The Rose Code. I have already mentioned Dilly Knox, but we also briefly meet Alan Turing, Winston Churchill…and Prince Philip, who is romantically involved with Osla before his marriage to Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen). This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as Kate Quinn apparently based the character of Osla Kendall on the real life Osla Benning, who really was a Canadian debutante who worked at Bletchley Park and was Prince Philip’s girlfriend – but I don’t personally feel comfortable reading fictional portrayals of people who are still alive and this whole storyline felt unnecessary to me. I couldn’t imagine the real Philip saying some of the things he says in the book either; in fact, although I did appreciate the author’s attempts to use the slang of the time, the language in general didn’t always feel quite right to me – and there are a few annoying references to England when it should be Britain.

Still, even the Philip storyline didn’t stop me from enjoying this book because the rest of it was so interesting and compelling. There was even one scene that made me cry and I think that’s always a sign that the author has done something right! I’m sure I will be reading more books by Kate Quinn.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Book 13/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.