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 HistoryLink.org, 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.