Monday, April 24, 2017

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

As I've written before, I am enjoying the collections of short stories edited for the "British Library Crime Classics" series by Martin Edwards. I've read Murder at the Manor (country house crime), Serpents in Eden (crime in the country), and Silent Nights (Christmas crime). This volume, subtitled "London Mysteries," may be my favorite.

It has a very interesting variety, with some familiar authors but several who were new to me. One story concerns a serial killer preying on people riding the Underground. It was "originally serialized in To-Day, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome." (I didn't know that Jerome was an editor as well as a writer.) According to the introductory notes - which are always informative - the serial kept people from riding the trains, and eventually "the Underground authorities wrote a letter of protest to Jerome." Richard Marsh's story "The Finchley Puzzle" features one of the earlier women detectives, Judith Lee. Another, by Ernest Bramah, has Max Carrados, whom the editor calls "perhaps the genre's most effectively realized blind detective." Anthony Berkeley had a story, "The Avenging Chance" (included here), which he later reworked as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (with a completely different ending). I was happy to discover one of H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stories as well. I found several of the stories quite suspenseful, and one (about a older spinster who does a good deed that goes horribly wrong) deeply unsettling.

The stories in most of the collections are placed in roughly chronological order, with Arthur Conan Doyle usually leading off. The women authors appear toward the end, sometimes under their male nom de plume. This collection has stories by E.M. Delafield, Margery Allingham, Lina White, and Lucy Malleson (writing as "Anthony Gilbert"). The Delafield story, "They Don't Wear Labels," has an ambiguous ending - and it's not the only one.

I still have two collections, Resorting to Murder and Crimson Snow, on the TBR shelves. I check for new ones every time I go into Murder by the Book. They are a lovely introduction to classic and Golden Age mystery authors, and I hope that Martin Edwards will keep finding and re-printing these stories.

Isn't the cover gorgeous? I would almost buy these books just for the covers. I'd love to have this one as a poster!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Home Port, by Olive Higgins Prouty

I really only picked up this fourth book in Olive Higgins Prouty's series of novels about the Vale family of Boston because a copy of the fifth book (Fabia) arrived through inter-library loan, with a short check-out time, and I wanted to read them in order. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did - much more than I'm enjoying Fabia at the moment, to be honest.

It opens with a young man recovering consciousness on a beach. Gradually he remembers that he is Murray Vale (Lisa Vale's youngest child), spending his vacation from Harvard Law School as a counselor at a camp in Maine, Tamarack. He and a new counselor, Briggs, had taken a canoe out on a trip across the lake. When a storm blew up, the canoe capsized. Though Murray tried desperately to hold on to Briggs and keep him afloat, he finally lost him in the rough waters. He blames himself for the accident, and he is prepared to take full responsibility. It's pretty clear to the reader that he isn't thinking clearly, partly from the trauma of the accident. He learns that the canoe has been found, and a full-out search is on for him. But when he also learns that his older brother Windy has arrived to join the search, his guilt overwhelms him. He can't face his brother with the responsibility for Briggs's death on him. So he takes to the road, with no clear plan other than escape, leaving his family to think him dead, lost in the storm.

This is a really interesting and engaging story of guilt and redemption. Being an Olive Higgins Prouty novel, it is also a psychological study. Murray has a huge inferiority complex about Windy. He has always been overshadowed by his older brother, tall and handsome, a natural athlete and charismatic leader, who contracted polio but fought his way back to mobility and an active life. Murray began to find his own path, particularly through nature studies, but he was laughed and teased out of them (by Windy, among others). He has been following the path of least resistance ever since, including enrolling in Harvard and then Harvard Law against his own wishes. Unfortunately for Murray, he has resisted all his mother's attempts to get him to talk with Dr. Jacquith, the psychologist who did so much for his Aunt Charlotte and for Lisa herself. Dr. Jacquith at least recognizes his "brother complex," and he also says that the family has been "trying to shape a copper urn out of a silver vase."

I particularly enjoyed Murray's adventures once he fled from the camp and his old life. He travels by bus and by hitch-hiking, staying in small boarding houses, eating in diners (not at all the types of places a Boston Vale would feel at home). I kept seeing Norman Rockwell images in my mind - though Murray's travels are far from comfortable, and always overshadowed by his own misery and guilt. I liked his grit and his determination to make his own way, and I enjoyed his adventures (a lot more than he did). The story (published in 1947) covers several years of his life, moving into the Second World War. Prouty doesn't tell us what happens to him at the end of the book - she leaves his story hanging. I am hoping to find out in Fabia - and it better be a happy ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking for Betty MacDonald, by Paula Becker

The subtitle of this new biography is "The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I." I first learned about it from Constance Martin, who blogs at Staircase Wit. I immediately broke out a Barnes & Noble gift card that I had been hoarding, to order a copy.

The author, Paula Becker, is a staff historian at, an on-line encyclopedia of Washington State history. (I lived in Washington State for many years, and I wish we'd had this resource when I was in school.) As I did, she first met Betty MacDonald as a child, through her "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books." As I did too, she came to MacDonald's books for grown-ups as an adult herself, and was quickly captivated. Living in Seattle, MacDonald's home for many years, Ms. Becker began, in the words of the title, looking for Betty MacDonald. She traced the homes she lived in, she met people who knew her. And when she realized there was no biography of this author, she wrote one.
At the beginning of this treasure hunt, I wanted to find Betty. By journey's end, I wanted others to find her, this young woman whose face was as familiar during the 1940s and 1950s as any movie star's, whose voice was the first - male or female - to entrance readers around the planet with a story deeply rooted in the great Pacific Northwest. I wanted none of her story lost. And I wanted modern readers - who knew her for the Piggle-Wiggles, if they knew her at all - to understand how richly Betty MacDonald deserved to be found.
I have read all four of Betty MacDonald's memoirs, more than once (and written briefly about them). I felt that I had the basic outline of her life straight in my mind. For me, much of the interest in this book was learning about the real life lived, and how MacDonald transmuted that into her stories, what she changed or deleted, and why. Her last memoir, Onions in the Stew, was published in 1955. Ms. Becker carries the story of MacDonald's life through the difficult years that followed, to her death from ovarian cancer in 1958. She was only 50. I can't help wondering what she might have written, given time and health.

The book has wonderful illustrations, of Betty's family (I felt I knew them already, from her books), and also of the homes where she lived. Ms. Becker's research took her all over the west and to New York as well. I envied her access to MacDonald's family members, and above all to MacDonald's archives. From the chapter describing her research, it sounds like she might have been the first to open the boxes and file folders in fifty years or more. It also sounds like Betty MacDonald was as funny and snarky in her letters as in her books, and I'd love to read a collection of them. I hope that her heirs will consider donating the collection to a library or archives, so they can be preserved and protected.

For anyone who doesn't know Betty MacDonald, or only knows Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (as wonderful as she is) this would be a wonderful introduction. Well-written and engaging, it conveys Ms. Becker's enthusiasm for Betty MacDonald and her books. It gives a real sense of the person behind the books. I can almost guarantee it will send people off in search of the books they haven't read yet. It certainly makes me want to pull them all off the shelf again. The meticulous bibliography also added a book to my reading list, Much Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of a Woman's Friendship with Betty MacDonald and Her Family, by Blanche Caffiere. Thanks again to Constance, I have also added one of MacDonald's children's books, Nancy and Plum, which I somehow missed growing up.

As it happens, I have an extra copy of Betty MacDonald's third memoir, Anybody Can Do Anything. I came across a U.S. first edition recently, and I couldn't resist buying it. I would be happy to share the British edition that I found first. If you'd like it, just send me an email (maylisa66 at earthlink dot net). If I get more than one interested reader, I'll draw names.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lisa Vale, by Olive Higgins Prouty

This is the second in the series of novels that Olive Higgins Prouty wrote about the Boston Brahmin family the Vales. The titular character, Lisa Vale, is married to the oldest Vale son Rupert, and the sister-in-law of Charlotte (of Now, Voyager, the third in the series). I haven't come across too many heroines named Lisa!

Like Now, Voyager, this story opens on board a ship. Lisa is returning from an extended stay in Europe with her two daughters, Fabia and June. Fabia is secretly engaged to a young doctor, Dan Regan, who is socially and economically far beneath one of the "Boston Vales." Lisa has a secret of her own (this isn't a spoiler, it's explained in the first chapter - and it's not quite so secret as Lisa thinks it is). Her marriage to Rupert has never been a happy one, and she has been in love for years with Barry Firth, a partner in her husband's firm. Though their affair is an emotional one, not a physical one, Lisa is careful to keep everything in the proper bounds. She recently helped get Barry promoted to the Chicago office and away from Boston, but they still write to each other.

As if worry for her daughter and about Barry weren't enough, Lisa receives word that her elder son Rupert Junior (known as Windy in the family) has been arrested for drunk driving. There was a young woman in the car with him (like Dan Regan, she is not of their class). His father is apoplectic, particularly since Windy has just failed to get into Harvard. She is also worried about her second son, Murray, a frail boy who is struggling in school. At least her daughter June, about to make her debut, is enjoying it all and causing her mother no qualms.

Someone commented on my post about Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks that it is "A very satisfying, a bit old-fashioned family story." I think the same could be said of this book. I had met most of these characters already in Now, Voyager. I already liked Lisa, who was such a good friend to her sister-in-law Charlotte. Here she is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her own needs. I think she is a good mother, who loves her children and tries to support and help them, even when she disagrees with the choices they are making. While she plays her expected part as a wife, she stands up both to Rupert and his overbearing mother, Grandmother Vale. And she is very resourceful, in helping Windy out in his situation and in handling a financial setback with an unexpected pragmatism that I found charming. She deals with what is, rather than wasting time worrying or whining about what can't be helped.

As much as I liked Lisa, I found this book less satisfying than Now, Voyager. It didn't have the same impact as Charlotte's re-birth and growth into her own life. The story spends quite a bit of time with Fabia's romance, which I thought rather boring despite the drama (and then I knew from the later book how it turned out). I did enjoy this book though. Charlotte made several cameos - at one point Fabia declares that she won't be another Charlotte. I was glad to know how much happiness is ahead for her.

The fourth book in the series, Home Port, focuses on Lisa's younger son Murray (who seems to be the proverbial ninety-eight pound weakling). The library has already found me an inter-library loan of the fifth and last book, the elusive and expensive Fabia. I want to read them in order, and the ILL period is short, so I will be spending more time with the Vales in the near future.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is an author whose books I enjoy very much, but I have the hardest time writing about them! I think it is in part because I feel like I am late in discovering her - that everyone must have read her books already. That's true of other authors that I read, yet I don't have such a block in writing about them. Here again with Greenbanks (as with High Wages and The Priory) I'm struggling with what to say about this story of a home and three generations of the family that owns it, other than I liked it very much. I am still thinking about how the characters' lives carried on after the story ended, and wishing that Dorothy Whipple had written a sequel, set say five or six years later.
So I thought I'd share some of my favorite passages. I loved Louisa Ashton, the kind and patient matriarch of the family. She has a special bond with her granddaughter Rachel, who spends a lot of her time at Greenbanks. I think Rachel and her uncle Charles, Louisa's son, are the only people who truly appreciate her. Charles tells her one day, "The only person I find completely satisfying, Mother, is you."
     'Me?' asked Louisa, going quite pink.
     'Mmmm,' said Charles. 'The French have an expression "Bon comme le pain." When I heard it, I thought of you. You're good, like bread; you're essential, you know, Mother. The world couldn't get on without people like you.'
     'Nay, nay,' protested Louisa. 'I'm not half clever enough. Not clever enough for your father, not half clever enough for you children. I've always felt that drawback.'
     'It's better to be wise than clever, and that's what you are, darling. But don't look so bothered. I won't praise you any more.'

One day Rachel wants something to dress her dolls, and Louisa opens up the ottoman in her bedroom.
It was long and stiff, with a high rolled end; no one dreamed of accepting its invitation to recline. . . When Louisa opened it, it let out a smell of time, a faded, shut-up smell of prints and silks and flannels that had been there for years. Rachel leaned into it, drumming her toes on the side, entirely unaware that the ottoman contained an almost complete record of her grandmother's life.
Rachel asks to hold a little box, which belonged to Louisa in her own childhood. She steps over to
a little water-colour drawing of Louisa as a child in short black boots and royal blue frock, clasping the very box Rachel now held in her hands. It gave Rachel a queer feeling to hold the box and look at it in the picture. She felt the little girl with a round face and curls so fair you could hardly see them on the paper could not possibly be her grandmother, but the box was the very same box still. She looked from the box in her hands to the box in the picture for several minutes. Then she handed it back to her grandmother and leaned into the ottoman once more.
I've had that same feeling, looking at a photo of my grandmother as a child in the 1910s. There was no box to connect us across the years, just the family likeness.

Louisa rummages through the layers of her life and her memories, while Rachel watches, unaware of what is passing through her grandmother's mind. Eventually Louisa finds a piece of red bombazine, which satisfies Rachel. This scene reminded me of Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl,  where Polly and the Shaw children spend an afternoon with Grandmother Shaw, digging through her cabinets of treasures. But Mrs. Shaw tells the children stories about what they discover, and her memories are happy ones. Louisa's aren't, for the most part. And in the end, she puts back "a beautifully stitched night-gown and a night-cap with a frilled edge. These were her death clothes..."

Finally, it's always lovely to meet a fellow reader, even a fictional one:
Rachel had a passion for reading, shared by no member of her family . . . But Rachel, surreptitiously visiting the book-cases where her father had all the best books on show, extracted volume after volume of Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, Goldsmith, Dickens, Scott, Jane Austen, bound Cornhills, bound Punches . . . She skimmed over what she did not understand and got what she wanted from the rest . . . She read the classics with avidity, not knowing them to be classics, but she read with equal avidity St. Hilda's, Brenda Shows the Way, The Hockey Heroine and other school tales lent to her by Judy, who always had books of this kind given to her at Christmas. She read, too, the penny novelettes she found in the kitchen at Greenbanks and at Beech Crescent. She made no discrimination between these literatures; she read and enjoyed them all.
I finally redeemed a book token from Persephone that I have been hoarding, so I'll soon have a copy of Because of the Lockwoods to add to my Dorothy Whipple collection (all in the lovely grey spines).

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Three Brides, by Charlotte M. Yonge

Charlotte M. Yonge really puts her characters - and her readers - to the test. The last book of hers I read, The Pillars of the House, began with a poverty-stricken family of eleven children (one crippled with a "diseased ancle-joint"), a tubercular father, and a frail mother (pregnant, as it turns out, with twins, her second set). I knew from the first page I was in for serious drama (if not melodrama), but also for a good story. Her strong characters and easy narration make her books so very readable.

This book, published in 1876, opens at the home of Julia Charnock Poynsett, a widowed mother of five sons (and two more lost in infancy). She is confined to her room after a riding accident some years ago. Her three eldest sons have recently married, one after the other, and the brides of the title are coming to meet their new family for the first time. Raymond, the eldest and heir to his mother's property, has married his second cousin Cecil Charnock, the only child of the head of the senior branch of the family. Julius, recently named rector of the parish, has married Lady Rosamond, the daughter of a impoverished Irish earl, an army officer whose family has traveled the globe with him. The third son, Miles, is a sailor who has sent Anne, the wife he met and married in the South African bush, home while he completes his tour of duty. Two unmarried sons are at home, preparing for careers, Frank in business and Charlie in the army. Though they will soon be gone, the other sons and their wives will be living together with their mother, who is "lady of Compton Poynsett in her own right," holding the property and the purse strings. Now, isn't that a perfect recipe for family drama? Add in a missing cousin accused of embezzlement, a young curate who'd rather be playing cricket, a thwarted young romance, and an epidemic, and you've got a real page-turner.

Julius, the third son, and the rector, is introduced matter-of-factly as an albino. It is mentioned in passing, as a family trait, with a cousin sharing his white hair but not his "coral" eyes. I have noted before that Charlotte Yonge is the first Victorian novelist I have read to include characters with disabilities so fully in her stories. In The Pillars of the House, the young woman with the diseased ankle decides to have her foot amputated and gets fitted with a cork foot, giving her much more freedom of movement. That really surprised me - I always think of surgery as a last resort for the Victorians, and I hope to heaven she had chloroform - though it made sense to and for the character. Here Julius is a strong, virtuous, spiritual character, as one would expect a parson to be in Yonge's novels. He has married a woman of rank, who is also beautiful and kind - and it's clearly a love match on both sides. She doesn't seem to have boggled at his appearance, and neither does anyone else, except his new sister-in-law Anne - but she has the excuse of being ill after a long voyage. I find this simple acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into families and communities really interesting.

If Charlotte Yonge seems progressive in that area, she is certainly of her time when it comes to women's roles. The story of the three brides isn't just of their adjustment to marriage or their new family. Each also has to change, to grow in her proper womanly role. Cecil is spoiled and too caught up in family pride. She also resents her mother-in-law's control of the household (however lightly exercised), and the close relationship she has with her sons. Rosamond is too frivolous and lazy for a rector's wife, though her warm heart makes up for almost everything. Poor Anne comes off the worst initially. Sickly, terrified of everything new, she is also rigid in her church doctrine and very judgmental of the family. She even asks if Julius the model rector is really a Christian. I started to wonder if Miles just married her because she was the first woman he'd seen after a long voyage! But eventually she relaxes a bit and becomes much more human.

The question of the proper role and place of women plays a big part in the book. Cecil, bored with playing second fiddle to her mother-in-law, takes up with the local black sheep of the neighborhood (without knowing the lady was previously engaged to her husband, a fact the reader learns in the first few pages). Lady Tyrrell has gathered some very dubious people around her, including an American woman who lectures on The Equality of the Sexes and Women's Rights. Charlotte Yonge has no time for either. Like the saintly Mrs. Poynsett, she would probably say that she had all the rights she needed. Several characters, women as well as men, argue for role of women as Angel in the House, secluded away lest any corruption of the world touch them to make them unfit for the sacred duties of wives and mothers. There is a lot of talk of women's "pure" spirits. The American Mrs. Tallboys, from "the other Cambridge," with her complacent and largely silent husband, is clearly set up as a straw-woman here.

A second major plot element involves the evils of horse-racing. An annual race-meeting is held in the neighborhood. As the local Member of Parliament, Raymond is a subscriber. Julius sets himself against it from the first, though Rosamond loves the excitement of a meet. The right-minded characters discuss the problems, not so much with racing itself, but with the betting, and with the low-life characters that are drawn to it. Several characters are addicted to gambling, and family fortunes have been lost. Despite these examples, and all the well-reasoned arguments Yonge's characters present, it takes a large-scale tragedy to finally convince at least the upper classes to give up the races.

Actions have consequences, in Charlotte Yonge's stories, and people pay for their mistakes and bad choices. Sometimes they pay with their lives. Sometimes it is innocent bystanders who pay. I never start one of her books without wondering which character - or how many - will be dead by the book's end. Someone always will - and she usually presents that as a "happy" ending, a reward. Here at least she spares one attractive young man, though she takes him to the very brink of death. I peeked ahead to the end of that chapter, because I was so sure he wasn't going to make it.

Despite my occasional frustrations with Yonge's books, I enjoy them very much. (Heartsease was my least favorite, of those I have read so far.) She is more earnest, less fun, less satirical, than Anthony Trollope or Margaret Oliphant, but I do find her books addictive. I've been lucky finding reprints on-line, particularly in "three-and-sixpenny" Macmillan editions from the 1880s and 1890s, which are surprisingly affordable. My copy of The Pillars of the House came in two volumes, a genuine "double-decker"! Somehow these escaped the general purge of Victorian literature in World War II that seems to have struck the women authors particularly hard. It's a joy to hold and read these old books.

Edited to add: I had almost forgotten about my Century of Books! Now I can fill in another year.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Silence in Court, by Patricia Wentworth

Ever since I learned that Patricia Wentworth wrote mystery novels that don't feature her detective Miss Maud Silver (I think first from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock), I have been keeping an eye out for them. When I stopped in at my beloved Murder by the Book the other day, I was thrilled to find several shelves of the recent reprints from Dean Street Press. This was the first time I have seen any of them in print, and I was glad to see a list of all the titles. I hadn't realized that some of them feature Miss Silver's frequent collaborators Frank Abbott and Ernest Lamb of Scotland Yard. Nor did I know just how many stand-alone books Patricia Wentworth wrote!

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness recently wrote about one of them, Who Pays the Piper?, which sounds like a good one. But it wasn't on the shelves - not that I wasn't spoiled for choice. I was trying to restrain myself, so I only bought two to start with, this one from 1945 and The Dower House Mystery (published in 1925). I didn't remember at the time that this was the very book that Jane had written about.

As it turns out, it was a lucky choice. I think it's one of the best I've read by Patricia Wentworth, and an excellent example of a Golden Age mystery. It opens as Carey Silence steps up into the dock, to face the charge of murdering her relative Honoria Maquisten. The story then moves back to introduce us to Carey, a young woman just out of the hospital, recovering from a German air attack that killed her employer. She hasn't fully recovered, and with no job and no resources, the offer of a place to stay from her distant relative Mrs. Maquisten is very welcome. Carey isn't the only family connection living in the old house at Maitland Square, nor the only one dependent on the old lady's generosity. Mrs. Maquisten is generous, but she also enjoys holding her money over her young relatives' heads, re-writing her will on a regular basis. The arrival of an anonymous letter one day puts her in a rage. A summons to her solicitor follows, and an announcement to the family that one of them will be finally cut out the next day. Instead, the next day finds her dead, and Carey Silence accused of her murder.

I realized part-way through the book that I was subconsciously waiting for Miss Silver to arrive. I know just how she would have insinuated herself into the house and made herself at home. I did worry for a bit how the case would be solved without her. And then I realized that while I had some idea how the story would turn out, if Miss Silver were on the case, Patricia Wentworth might have written an entirely different type of story here. In none of the Miss Silver stories I have read so far has the main protagonist been the criminal (or the victim, for that matter).

One of the main differences I found in this story was how much of it focused on the trial itself. We experience it from Carey's point of view, standing in the dock, realizing that her life is at stake, in the hands of twelve men and women. I thought this part was very well done. It reminded me of one of my favorite Peter Wimsey stories, Strong Poison. Carey is as lucky as Harriet Vane in having a strong advocate at hand, a large American cousin named Jefferson Stewart. It's too bad she couldn't have Sir Impey Biggs for the defense!

I also enjoyed the brief biographical sketch of Patricia Wentworth that introduces the book. It mentions the historical fiction that she published before turning to crime. It might be interesting to find those books. I know I'll be adding more of these new reprints to my shelves before too long.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shadow on the Wall, by H.C. Bailey

Lady Rosnay has insisted that Reginald Fortune attend her fancy dress ball, but the merriment is disrupted when the old lady takes a tumble down the stairs and loses her diamond tiara. She is strangely unruffled by the incident, which intrigues Reggie, who is almost certain she was pushed. But the mischief is just getting under way. Two murders follow, and Reggie, along with his friend Lomas, head of Scotland Yard's C.I.D., begin investigating in earnest. Their suspects include Simon Osmond, a rising young politician whose plans to marry Lady Rosnay's niece, Alix Lynn, have been vetoed by the imperious old lady, as well as the headstrong Alix herself. (Back cover blurb from Rue Morgue Press edition.)
[Alix is actually Lady Rosnay's granddaughter, not that it matters to the plot.]
This is the first of two Reggie Fortune novels that have been reissued by Rue Morgue Press. Originally published in 1934, it was also the first full-length Fortune novel that H.C. Bailey wrote, after several books of short stories. The Rue Morgue edition includes a brief biographical sketch of H.C. Bailey, from which I learned that he wrote thirty historical and adventure novels, as well as at least twenty-five mysteries - most while working full-time as a journalist!

I have seen Bailey's mysteries described as "fair-play" stories, along with Dorothy L. Sayers' and Agatha Christie's. I'm guessing that means the authors don't withhold evidence from the readers, or suddenly introduce suspects at the last minute, though Sayers and Christie at least weren't above misdirecting their readers. And I remember a point in Sayers' Nine Red Herrings where something is missing from a crime scene, and the author tells her readers that of course we know what it was missing and why it was important (not being a painter, I of course had no idea). Reggie Fortune certainly stresses the importance of collecting all the evidence and seeing it clearly - and of not reasoning ahead of the evidence, or jumping to conclusions. As his author says of him, "His own successes he attributes to the simple method of believing evidence, which he sees very rarely practiced by clever creatures." The Golden Age authors don't stint on the evidence their detectives turn up, though. Part of the puzzle is sorting out what's important, and also understanding the conclusions that the police or the detective draws from it.

The back cover blurb is a little misleading. What sets the case in motion is actually the suicide of a young mother, and a nasty anonymous letter sent to her daughter at boarding school. It's really the letter that catches Reggie's attention. He is always concerned for the children that are involved or get caught up in his cases, and in the stories that I've read, threats to children bring out an avenging side to him. Lady Rosnay makes a point of speaking to  him about the suicide, before inviting him to her ball - which certainly comes to a smashing close! The story that follows is rather complicated, and I wasn't always sure where it was going - but then neither was Reggie. What he is sure of in the end is "the fundamental decency of people...That's why I'm not melancholy. Look at 'em. Something ultimately decent in 'em, however far they'd gone wrong. That's the force that broke the [villains]." There's something appealing in a hero who recognizes and values that.

The authors of the biographical sketch write that "Reggie Fortune was, for the most part, more successful with readers when taken in short doses," as in H.C. Bailey's many short stories. I'm not sure I agree. I have two more of the Fortune novels on the TBR shelves, so I'll see. But I don't think I'll be collecting the complete works - and not just because so many are out of print. Eleven of his mystery novels have a different detective, Joshua Clunk: "a coarse, hymn-quoting attorney who is not above employing extralegal means to clear his own client and suss out the real murderer." Mr. Clunk made a cameo in this book, representing one of the suspects, but I didn't realize he was a regular character until I read the introduction.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Silence Fallen, by Patricia Briggs

My friend Margaret gave me the first three books in Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series for my birthday last year. She had recommended them to me in part because they are set in the Tri-Cities of eastern Washington State (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick). I grew up in that area, in Walla Walla, about thirty miles down the highway. The Tri-Cities was our big city. It was an event to drive those thirty miles, to go to the Columbia Center Mall, or to the movies. I remember cramming a bunch of people in my parents' Volkswagen Bug to go see "Amadeus," which wasn't going to make it to our one small theater in Walla Walla.

Margaret and I have a lot of books in common, starting with Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Dorothy Dunnett. It was Margaret who introduced me to Margaret Maron's books. I trusted her recommendation, but I admit that I judged the books from the covers. Here's the first book:

(The stories don't quite match the covers. Mercy wears more clothes & fewer tattoos, for starters.)
I was already wondering how to diplomatically explain to Margaret that I just hadn't clicked with them. I sat down with this first book one morning when I had a few minutes to spare, and I nearly didn't make it in to work that day. I was hooked from the first page, and by the end of the book I was more than a little obsessed with the series. I went on to read the next seven books in the series, four books in a related series, and a book of short stories set in the same world. Mind you, this was while I was negotiating to buy a house, and while I was supposed to be packing to move. I actually packed the books away at one point, because they were so distracting - and then unpacked them the next day, and continued to ignore the rest of the boxes waiting to be filled.

The main character in the series, Mercedes Thompson, is a VW mechanic with her own shop in the Tri-Cities. She is also a shapeshifter who turns into a coyote, an inheritance from her Native American father. Mercy's teen-aged mother was unable to cope with her changeling child and found a pack of werewolves to raise her. What Mercy learned there helps her deal with the local pack in the Tri-Cities, led by the charismatic (and gorgeous) Alpha wolf Adam. She also has a connection to the local vampire seethe through her friend Stefan; and to the fae community through Zee, a grumpy old fae who gave Mercy a job at his garage and later sold it to her. Many of the fae have retired to reservations, one of which is located near Walla Walla. (I wish there had been a fae reservation in Walla Walla when I lived there.)

I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, but I haven't read a lot of books with shapeshifters, let alone werewolves or fae. I've avoided vampires ever since a so-called "children's" edition of Dracula scared me out of my wits in elementary school. But these books really hooked me in. They are written mainly from Mercy's point of view, and she is a great character, strong and snarky - and very sneaky when she needs to be (and not just in her coyote form). She is a loyal friend, and it's that loyalty that draws her into her adventures, often to solve a mystery. She moves between the mundane world of her garage and the supernatural communities, sometimes as the liaison between them. I find the politics of the werewolves, the vampires and the fae very interesting, particularly watching Mercy negotiate (and often get the better of) them.

Silence Fallen is the tenth book in the series. It's a series that really needs to be read in order, as more of Mercy's history is revealed through the stories, and as relationships are built and broken. There is also a large cast of characters to get to know - this book even has a helpful list in the back (a first). I won't say much about the plot, but this is the first book set mostly outside Washington State. It takes place mainly in Milan and Prague. It introduces some new characters, one of whom is a real Trojan Horse. That part of the story, which caught me completely by surprise, had me frantically flicking back to re-read.

Patricia Briggs has already announced that the next book will be in her second series, set mainly around the werewolf pack where Mercy was raised. I like those books, except for the third (Fair Game), which has a serial sadistic sex killer. I really hate stories with serial killers. But that series does have my favorite secondary characters, a blind witch named Moira and her werewolf mate Tom. Ms. Briggs has said she has a story in mind for them someday, and I will be in line to buy that one whenever she gets around to writing it.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Now, Voyager, by Olive Higgins Prouty

This was a serendipitous find on the library sale shelves. I recognized the title, having seen the 1942 film. It stars several of my favorite actors: Claude Rains, Bette Davis, Gladys Cooper (the perfect imperial matriarch), and Mary Wickes as a sassy nurse. I learned from Turner Classic Movies that Paul Henreid made his film debut in this, and that he always credited Bette Davis for his success.

I was curious to see how the book compared to the film, particularly the ending, which (in the film) I found rather sentimental and implausible. As I discovered, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation, right down to the ending. As I expected, I enjoyed the book more. It felt deeper and richer than the film, despite its stellar cast.

Now, Voyager is the story of Charlotte Vale (of "the Boston Vales"). She is a "caboose" child, born long after her three brothers. She has heard all her life that her arrival brought her mother no joy. Mrs. Vale has been equally frank about expecting her unwanted daughter to stay at home and care for her. She has dominated Charlotte her whole life, down to her hairstyle, the clothes she wears, and the food she eats. Under this treatment, Charlotte has become the complete spinster aunt, with a bun of hair and steel spectacles. When she finally suffers a nervous breakdown, her sympathetic sister-in-law Lisa gets her admitted to Cascade, a sanitarium run by Dr. Jacquith. Once Charlotte is well enough, Lisa helps her to escape again by arranging for her to take a cruise to Europe. The story opens with Charlotte sitting on a terrace in Gibraltar, watching her ship at anchor and waiting for a fellow-passenger with whom she is touring the island. It follows her as she reclaims her own life, growing out of the constrictions her mother imposed on her, finding friends and love and a new purpose in life.

I really enjoyed her story, watching her re-birth - which isn't an easy one. Eventually she returns home to her mother, but not to her old life. I loved that part of the story, despite knowing (from the film) how it turned out. I have read that Olive Higgins Prouty was considered something of a pioneer in writing about mental illness and its treatment. I liked Claude Rains' portrayal of Dr. Jacquith in the film, and he's an even more attractive character in the book. I feel like I could benefit from a stay at Cascade, particularly these days.

I still have an issue with the ending. Charlotte takes on a project that I find rather implausible and pretty problematic (Dr. Jacquith has some serious reservations about it as well). But it takes up less space in Book-Charlotte's story, and I feel like she is better-suited to deal with it than Film-Charlotte. I do understand why she does it. And as with Lily Dale, I accept that I have to accept the character's choices. (Now that I think about it, there are some distinct parallels with Lily Dale.)

In looking for information about Olive Higgins Prouty, about whom I knew nothing at all, I discovered that she wrote a series of five novels about the Vale family. This is the third. The second book focuses on Charlotte's sister-in-law Lisa. The first and fifth are about Lisa's daughter Fabia, who becomes a nurse in part to recover from an unhappy love affair. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am a sucker for a series, particularly a family saga. I immediately went looking for copies of the other books. The "Fabia" books are rare and shockingly expensive, even in later paperback editions. I have requested the second, called simply Fabia, from inter-library loan. The "Lisa" novel (and how could I resist a sympathetic heroine named Lisa) is also in short supply, and unfortunately none of the three is available as an ebook. But Now, Voyager has been reprinted many times and is easily available. I also found inexpensive copies of the fourth book in the series, Homeport. In all of this browsing, I discovered that Prouty wrote Stella Dallas, a title I recognize from the film with Barbara Stanwyck (which I haven't seen). It too was considered ground-breaking, in its treatment of motherhood. Virago has reprinted this one, a copy of which will soon be on the TBR shelves.

I had just been congratulating myself on my bookish restraint this year. Then I found the Patricia Wentworth reprints at Murder by the Book, and now I have a literary crush on Olive Higgins Prouty. Verily pride goeth before a fall.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Day of Glory, Dorothy Canfield

These days, I seem to lose the ability to write coherent sentences after about 7.30 in the evening. It is really cutting into my blogging time, particularly when my weekends get busy. Maybe the time change this weekend will help, with the longer light in the evenings.

I ordered my copy of this book back in January. I had pretty much given up hope of it, figuring it was lost in the mail, when it turned up in my mailbox on Friday. I was immediately intrigued, because it is a small book, only six chapters, less than 150 pages in my Henry Holt edition. I was also intrigued by the 1919 publication date, which suggested a connection to the Great War - as did the title of one of the pieces, "France's Fighting Woman Doctor." It turns out that the entire book is about France in the war years. It felt like a companion to DCF's 1918 book, Home Fires in France.

But this book felt different than most of the collections of her short stories that I have read.  Except for the first chapter, "On the Edge," these pieces read more like magazine articles than fiction. Most have authorial comments in the first person. The second chapter, "France's Fighting Woman Doctor," is a profile of a real person, Dr. Nicole Girard-Mangin, whom DCF seems to have known personally. According to DCF, the authorities who called her to military service didn't realize she was a woman until she arrived at the front (according to Wikipedia, she volunteered for service). I loved learning about her. And having read a bit about medical service from British and American nurses, it was so interesting to see it from the French side.

"Some Confused Impressions" describes a day spent "Near Ch√Ęteau-Thierry, July, 1918," where the author meets French troops and civilians, as well as United States soldiers recently arrived in France. The last chapter, "The Day of Glory," is an account of the November 11th armistice in Paris. Only one chapter doesn't deal directly with the war, "Lourdes," focusing instead a day at the shrine among the pilgrims.

There are authors whose work I enjoy, whose books I buy, that I read and re-read. Then there are the authors whose work so resonates with me that I want to read - and own - everything that they have written. Dorothy Canfield is one of those authors, though I haven't really looked for her children's books yet (other than Understood Betsy). I think of them as the "complete" authors, and the list includes Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnett, Kate O'Brien, Maura Laverty, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross, even Laura Ingalls Wilder. It doesn't include Georgette Heyer (because I don't want to read her medieval historical novels), Dorothy L. Sayers (I feel no call to read her Dante translation), or even Anthony Trollope (ditto his book on Cicero or his biography of Thackeray). Do you have authors like that?

It's 7.24, and I feel my brain turning into a pumpkin!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Stone of Chastity, for Margery Sharp Day

When I chose The Stone of Chastity to read for this year's celebration of Margery Sharp, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I knew nothing about it. The American edition I found on-line has a very decorative cover:

But it has no dust jacket, so there was no synopsis to tell me anything about the story. I wasn't expecting something along of the lines of a mystery story in a rural village. There is an investigation, interviews with local residents, even a type of trial. But rather than murder, the hunt is for the Stone of the title, and the stories about it.

The person directing the investigation is Professor Isaac Pounce, a specialist in folklore and magic. Some months earlier, while visiting friends, he went rooting around in their attics ("while his hosts were looking for him to play bridge"), and found a diary with a very intriguing entry from 1803:
Mr. C. back from Gillenham. I thank God in my striped India muslin, rose-colour sash. Mr. C. entertaining as ever; tells us an odd strange legend, that in the stream there is a certain stepping-stone, on which if a Miss who should by rights have quitted that Title, or a wife unfaithful, set her foot, the poor creature infallibly stumbles and is muddied for all to see. 'Tis called the Stone of Chastity. Mamma shocked.
There was a further account of a young maidservant, "challenged by her mistress to make trial of the S. of C., did so out of brazenness in her Sunday print, white stockings, fine black shoes, green garters. All ruined by the stinking mud. She now the mother of a fine boy."

The Professor immediately decided he had to investigate this further.

I love stories that begin with an archival discovery. I'd like to have read more of the diary, actually - which the Professor calmly pockets, by the way, stealing it from his friends without a word or a qualm. He quickly locates the village in question, leases a house there, and arrives to carry out his research. He brings his nephew Nicholas as his secretary. Also in the household is Nicholas's mother, the Professor's widowed sister-in-law, and Carmen, a striking young woman whose position there is ambiguous to say the least.

With Nicholas's reluctant help, Professor Pounce prepares a questionnaire for the residents of Gillenham, asking what they know about the Stone of Chastity, and about the maidservant who failed the challenge back in 1803. When one of the villagers turns out to have the Stone itself (embedded in her scullery floor), he plans a public trial of it for the local women. He never stops to consider whether the residents might find his questions about their virtue - and the entire topic of chastity - inappropriate and offensive. He is magnificently self-absorbed, intent only on the research. His unwilling assistant does realize that trouble is brewing, but he is distracted himself by Carmen and then by his pursuit of another young woman.

I enjoyed this funny, fast-moving story very much. It felt a little different from the other books of Margery Sharp that I have read, which have focused on a central female character, telling her story. Nicholas plays something of that role here, and we see must of the action from his point of view. In his own way, he is nearly as self-absorbed as his uncle. He has recently taken his degree, but he has no plans, no ambition, other than to become a man of the world. I found him a little bit tiresome, yet he at least realizes the trouble that his uncle's research is creating, and he is a kind son.

There are many funny scenes in this book. My favorite came late in the story, as the Professor plans to cap his research with a public trial of the Stone. He forces the reluctant Nicholas to draw a poster inviting the local women to take part, which he posts (over Nicholas's objections) on the church door.
   By two o'clock that afternoon there were nineteen names on the Professor's list: those of Mrs. Jim, Mrs. Ada Thirkettle, Sally Thirkettle, Grace Uffley, Violet and Mabel Brain, Mrs. Jack Fletcher (all in the handwriting of the first), and twelve Boy Scouts.
   By three o'clock the poster had been torn down. There was no evidence as to who had done this, except that it was Mrs. Crowner's day for cleaning the church brasses. Fortunately the Professor had already visited the poster once and made a note of the first seven signatures. (The dozen Boy Scouts he rightly ignored.)
The Boy Scouts made me laugh out loud. On the day of the Trial, they are "turned out in full force, hopefully bringing their stretcher with them."

Thank you to Jane for introducing me to Margery Sharp, and for hosting this annual celebration of her books. I see that she has posted about this book as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what others have read, which I'm sure will add to my Margery Sharp collection - or at least my wish list, since some of her books are still out of print.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Real Motive, by Dorothy Canfield

The topic of "comfort reading" comes up often in book discussions. Ever since the presidential election in November, I have drawn comfort from the books of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. On election night itself, sick in body with what turned out to be a sinus infection, but also sick in heart and soul at the results, I had the strongest urge to read something of hers. I chose Hillsboro People, published in 1915. It is a collection of stories set around the town of the title, which perhaps stands for her own hometown of Arlington, Vermont. As Inauguration Day approached this week, I felt the same urge toward her books. This time I chose The Real Motive, another short story collection, published in 1916.

I've been trying to figure out what it is in her books that calls me so strongly right now. I think it is in part the balance, the humanity, the compassion that I find in her writing. Her characters are not all paragons. They can be weak and fragile, they can make bad choices and do harmful things. She shows us these things, but she wants us to understand the people who do them. And they can grow, learn, change their minds, sometimes. There is a basic human decency, a strength of character, an unshowy goodness in so many of them. Maybe it's also how clearly Canfield Fisher's stories express her values, her beliefs. She is not the most subtle of writers, and I know that some people find her overly didactic, too much the preacher. I don't. I feel like her fiction reflects the writer, the person that I came to know through reading an excellent collection of her letters a couple of years ago.

The stories in The Real Motive are an interesting mix, with some familiar elements. There are a couple set again in Hillsboro, but others in New York and Paris. Two of them take place around small colleges in the Midwest. DCF grew up in a small college town in Kansas, where her father taught at the state university. Perhaps that's where she developed her intolerance of the pretensions, the pettiness sometimes found in academic life. (I was a "faculty brat" myself, growing up in similar small college towns.) "From Across the Hall" is a sweet story of two parents watching their daughter fall in love, with very mixed feelings. "Vignettes from a Life of Two Months," about a new mother and her infant son, discusses breast-feeding with a frankness that I found surprising for 1916. Three of the stories involve immigrants, considering their motives in coming to America, their struggles here and the prejudices they face. I braced myself when one story introduced a "big, black-browed Semite, with the big diamond in his scarf and the big plaids on his protuberant waistcoat." But if his appearance had something of the stereotype, his character and the story didn't. I did cringe when the sole African American character to appear in the stories - a maid, traveling with her employer in France - spoke some of the worst "Gone with the Wind" style dialect ever written.

I realized only after finishing the book that while it was published in 1916, there is no hint of the Great War in it. At the time she was writing these stories, she and her husband John were planning to take their two children to France to work for the war effort.

I have collected and read most of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novels. I still have her last, Seasoned Timber, on the TBR shelves. I also have A Harvest of Stories, chosen by DCF for this collection published shortly before her death in 1958. I even gave in to temptation and bought a copy of her Memories of Arlington, Vermont, because I wanted to know more about the real "Hillsboro." I think she is an author I will be re-reading for years to come.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Meet Mr. Fortune, by H.C. Bailey

Last year, I lost my blogging voice. I was still reading, voraciously, but I couldn't figure out anything to say about what I was reading - at least not in a blog post. Over the past few weeks, I've had that feeling again, of wanting to share something about what I am reading, both the new books I am discovering and the old favorites I am savoring again. That's why I started this blog in the first place. So here I am again, at least today.

I am not usually a fan of short stories, but I have really enjoyed the collections of mystery stories that Martin Edwards has edited for the British Library Crime Classics series. (I've enjoyed them a lot more than the full-length novels from the series, to be honest.) I've met some familiar and favorite authors, and I've been introduced to many new-to-me writers and their characters. I took an immediate liking to H.C. Bailey's Reginald Fortune, and I wanted to read more. In the introduction to one story, Martin Edwards noted that Agatha Christie was a fan of Fortune, and that she paid homage to Bailey in Partners in Crime, where Tommy and Tuppence channel famous detectives (including Fortune) while running their own agency. Edwards also wrote that Bailey's books fell out of fashion after the Second World War. That unfortunately means that there aren't a lot of copies around now. But I did find this "Reggie Fortune Omnibus," published by The Book League of America in 1942, and designed to introduce Reggie to readers in the United States.

Reggie is a medical doctor who works for the Criminal Investigation Department in London as a scientific expert. He reminded me immediately of Peter Wimsey in his piffling conversation and his constant quotations. His speech is much more mannered than Wimsey's, though. He repeats himself, he moans, he murmurs, and he purrs (he is also a cat person, if that explains the purring). Like Wimsey, he is a demon driver, when he can be bothered to take the wheel. Unlike Wimsey, he is indolent by nature and quite the gourmand - or maybe a glutton - and he is a heavy man, who complains bitterly when he has to walk to a crime scene. I noticed that he doesn't seem to drink alcohol, taking a glass of soda while others are adding whisky to theirs. He is an expert in medical questions but also in general science, particularly natural science. He often spots clues in plants found at the scene of a crime or on a body. In two stories, his identification of moths plays a big part. Throughout the stories, Fortune shows great concern for people caught up in the cases, particularly children and those he believes to be unjustly accused. He takes pleasure in upending cases that his colleagues on the force think neatly solved, particularly when he believes they have ignored evidence in a rush to declare someone guilty. He has a very competent wife named Joan who handles him neatly. She occasionally involves him in cases but is firmly shunted off to the side in investigating them. H.C. Bailey wrote these stories in the 1930s and early 1940s, and his police force has no women constables, even for dealing with women suspects and victims.

The collection starts off with a novella, "The Bishop's Crime," centered around Badon Cathedral, an important medieval pilgrimage site. Its golden image of the Virgin Mary was lost at the time of the Reformation, sunk in a shipwreck on its way to Henry VIII's treasury. It is quite an exciting story, which draws on both the Cathedral's history and its library of rare books. At different points the Bishop and the dean, who have been in conflict over various matters (including the library), both come under suspicion of murder. (The Cathedral politics of course reminded me of Anthony Trollope.) The rest of the book consists of stories originally published in earlier collections. Some are set in London, others in country towns. I particularly enjoyed "The Greek Play," set at the top girls' school in the country.

I am hoping to find copies of at least some of H.C. Bailey's many books of Fortune stories. Two full-length novels have been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, and they at least are easily available. Bailey's stories are also in two of the Crime Classic collections I still have on the TBR shelves, Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder (but not in Crimson Snow, which I want to read while it's still technically winter). I would love to see the British Library republish some of his books in addition to the stories.